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CIVIL RIGHTS NOW RIDING ON `SEA OF CHANGE’

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Supreme Court decisions this month make discrimination suits more difficult to bring and win and, if successful, more vulnerable to attack.

The court's 5-to-4 conservative majority has changed its direction on civil rights.Critics of those rulings will be looking to Congress for relief.

So, as the struggle for civil rights appears to be entering a new phase, turn the clock back 25 years to a darker time - the long, hot "Freedom Summer" of 1964.

In June of that year, on the outskirts of the backwoods town of Philadelphia, Miss., three civil rights workers disappeared from the Neshoba County jail.

The decomposed bodies of the young men eventually were dug out of a 20-foot earthen dam. They had been shot to death, murdered in cold blood.

More than three years later, 18 men were tried for conspiracy to deprive the victims of their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The defendants included the sheriff and his deputy, as well as the imperial wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Seven of them ultimately were convicted and served hard time on sentences ranging from two to 10 years.

I spent a decade covering the civil rights struggle throughout the South - from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s.

In places like Philadelphia, the issues seemed clear then. It was easy in those troubled times even for reporters who professed objectivity to identify the forces of good and evil.

In Selma, Ala., the state troopers who bludgeoned those marching for voting rights clearly were brutes, as were the Birmingham bullies with their police dogs.

So, of course, were the rednecks who converged on the campus of the University of Mississippi in a violent attempt to bar the admission of James Meredith, the first black student at Ole Miss.

A recent status report on school desegregation in the United States reminded me of an atrocity I witnessed more than 30 years ago in Nashville, Tenn., when covering the integration of an elementary school.

I watched a crazed mob of whites terrorize a 6-year-old black child whose mother had attempted to register her in the first grade.

I don't know what became of that child but the school eventually was desegregated, although it later was bombed, presumably by diehard segregationists.

Those dark days had ended long before Ronald Reagan made the appointments to the Supreme Court that would prompt a sea of change in its direction on civil rights.

But there are civil rights leaders still around who remember the hard times. They will turn to Congress for redress, as they have in the past.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a member of the court's conservative majority, had this to say in an opinion that helped set the high court's new course:

"Neither our words nor our decisions should be interpreted as signaling one inch of retreat from Congress' policy to forbid discrimination."

Let us hope not.