Review of America's Peacemakers The Community Relations Service and Civil Rights by Levin & Lum
America’s Peacemakers is a description of the Community Relations Service (CRS) and how its work has had an impact on reducing violence since 1964. It is a second edition. The first edition by Bertram Levin called Resolving Racial Conflict: The Community Relations Service and Civil Rights 1964-1989 covers the civil rights era and its aftermath. Levin’s book was the only document describing the CRS at the time and was published in 2005. The 400+ page second edition is broken up into 3 parts including Levin’s original work in Part 1 with some additional facts and insights. Lum adds chapters 11-15 in Part 2 which document CRS involvement in race matters and hate crime from 1989-2019. Part 3 is the Conclusion, in which Lum both edits and appends to Levin’s work to update this section with the perspective of the past 30 years.
Part 1 highlights CRS involvement in civil rights conflicts. CRS was created by Title X of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and was instrumental in preventing violence between whites resisting change and blacks wanting equality. At first CRS reported to the Department of Commerce, but President Johnson moved CRS under the Department of Justice. President Johnson was a huge supporter of CRS and many businesses and Chambers of Commerce at the time were also issuing statements to reduce civil unrest so as not to disrupt business. These multifaceted pressures helped CRS influence the community towards non-violence. As an example of CRS involvement, Levin and Lum state that “the importance of timing and the readiness of antagonists to find a way out…. CRS provided them with a means of avoidance. March 9 was the time for CRS to play its crisis response role.” (Levine et al., 2021, 71). This statement refers specifically to the Selma March but it could have been written about other incidents as well. The book exposes numerous times that CRS found a unique way to manage emotions and egos to avoid a clash.
Part 2 talks about CRS involvement in hate crimes and in police and race relations. CRS was heavily involved in communications between polarized groups. For example, CRS helped bridge communication between the American Jewish Committee and Neo Nazi groups, and with religious groups and those in the LGTBQ++ community. Lum writes: “This ability to facilitate dialogue between parties that may not know each other or commonly work with each other – or may even be at odds with each other-is one of the unique contributions CRS makes. As outside, third parties, CRS conciliators can leverage the credibility of the federal Justice Department to bring together religious groups, protest groups, law enforcement and other stakeholders.“ (Levine et al., 2021, 270). CRS also provided protest management expertise and training to law enforcement so that they were prepared to deal with the crowds such as in Sanford, Florida where Trayvon Martin was killed. In Sanford, protesters were welcomed and given information. CRS conciliators had a specific goal “Preventing violence was the primary objective, and CRS was in a unique position to broker the peace.” (Levine et al., 2021, 271)
Part 3 details the conclusion which looks at the CRS itself in terms of confidentiality, budget, and difficulties of the role. CRS has struggled as any other organization with a confidential process, such as an Ombuds office, can attest. Not only is the public unaware of the role CRS plays in disputes, but because the process is confidential, so are many congressmen, police, and leaders. In many cases, CRS does not get the attention of the local leaders until the animosity is so high that they are scared into trying anything, and that anything is CRS. Another consequence of confidentiality is that it also caused budgetary woes. Even though the CRS budget is very small relative to other items, new congresspeople often cut the CRS budget because they do not know what it does or have heard much about it. It historically takes a president or an attorney general to speak up about the department to get monetary support for CRS during the budgeting cycle. One budget analyst said “Now I understand what you were trying to get across in your budget. I kept looking for a ‘product’. … It’s the process that is the product—that draws the parties into a collaborative effort.” (Levine et al., 2021. 377). To show value moving forward, CRS created a peer-review process to evaluate involvement, determine if there was something that could have been improved, and if CRS achieved desired results. Although it is difficult to prove that your actions stopped violence from happening, the peer-review and documentation of each involvement helped provide evidence that CRS is effective. The documentation showed how often it was difficult to get polarized groups to participate. “Protestors sometimes view consensual processes as antithetical to pressuring for change via demonstrations and conflict. Local government players like law enforcement and city officials can view a small, federal, civil rights-based agency as advocating for a specific outcome. (Levine et al., 2021, 389). It may take many months for CRS to build trust and credibility on both sides to be accepted in to help in a specific situation. The impact of
In summary, America’s Peacemakers: The Community Relations Service and Civil Rights by Bertram Levin and Grande Lum is an interesting read about historical events. Part 1 and 2 give detailed information about CRS involvement in incidents in our history. Although you may think you know what happened in many of the incidents in the book, the information on the role CRS played in them will give you a new perspective and appreciation for what happened behind closed doors and what it took to de-escalate. Part 3 shows the legacy of CRS. CRS was an early adopter of mediative techniques. The many court-based and community-based mediation programs that now exist throughout the country are using those techniques. CRS techniques are also the foundation of many of the training and degreed programs for Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR). These mediation programs that are providing a way to resolve conflict without going to trial and the training programs that are educating the next batch of conflict resolvers are based on what CRS learned through trial and error. Mediation programs and education are wonderful but the best legacy CRS brought to bear is the lives saved and injuries avoided in the reduced violence of conflicts in the past and future.
If the size of the book is intimidating, I recommend listening to it. I got part way through when I was struggling to find time to sit and read. It was more interesting to me to listen to the stories, and I was able to finish quickly. Everyone in the ADR field should be aware of CSR and its role in history. I wish information about CRS should be placed in history books so that the public becomes more aware of this valuable resource that is instrumental in preventing violence in our country.
You can find more information about events involving CRS on the Department of Justice (DOJ) web site at https://www.justice.gov/crs/about-crs/historical-timeline#event-645816.
Levine, B. J., Lum, G., & Levine, B. J. (2021). America's peacemakers: The Community Relations Service and civil rights. University of Missouri Press.