BLACK Americans have known two major eras that promised racial justice. The first came during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The second, amounting to another Reconstruction, occurred during the late '50s and the '60s, when at various times the three branches of the Federal Government made common cause with the civil rights movement, "an idea whose time has come." Only months ago, integration seemed an irreversible process. Now it seems that the idea's time is waning; that, as happened 93 years ago, a racial Reconstruction may be collapsing. The pattern coalesced last week with extraordinary swiftness: > The White House ordered the firing of Leon Panetta, the liberal lawyer who heads the civil rights division of the Department of Health, Education and Weifare. Panetta, 31, was forced out because of his allegedly excessive zeal in coercing Southern school districts to integrate under threat of losing their federal subsidies. "Panetta," explained a White House source, "was doing his thing, not the President's thing." The ouster further weakened the position of HEW Secretary Robert Finch, one of the few progressive counterweights to conservative influence on the racial issue in the Administration's top echelon. It also raised the suspicion that Education Commissioner lames E. Allen, another liberal subordinate of Finch's, might soon be forced out. > The Senate, by 56 to 36, passed an amendmentsponsored by Mississippi's John Stennisthat seems to require the North as well as the South to abandon segregated schools. Actually, the measure amounted to acquiescence to more and more Southern delay in complying with the Supreme Court's 16-year-old desegregation ruling. The vote revived the coalition of Republicans and Southern and Border State Democrats a bad omen for future civil rights fights.
By 145 to 122, the House sent through three related riders, two of them devised by Mississippian Jamie Whitten. They would sanction the South's "free-dom-of-choice" plans, which offer a rationale for continued dual school systems, and would discourage the busing of pupils to achieve racial balance.
In purely legal terms, the Senate and House votes may come to little. The Stennis amendment, attached to a $35 billion aid-to-education bill, faces a vote in the House and then a House-Senate conference, where the members, mostly liberals from the congressional education committees, may dilute the rider or scrap it. Besides, the amendment is framed as "a policy of the U.S. Government," which lacks the force of law. The House antibusing and freedom-of-choice provisions must go to the Senate and then to joint conference. Further, the amendments are part of a $19.4 billion Labor-HEW appropriation bill that Nixon has vetoed once as inflationary and may well reject again for economic reasons.