Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
Of the many jobs Clarence M. Pendleton, Jr. performed as a youth in Baltimore, one was to wash the stone steps of the home of a neighbor, Mrs. Marshall. While Pendleton, "Penny" as he called himself, was learning lessons in free enterprise, Mrs. Marshall’s son, Thurgood, was learning lessons in the courtroom that would one day lead to his becoming the first black justice on the Supreme Court. Both men successfully rose up through the system, but Marshall came to attack it while Pendleton became one of its staunchest defenders.
At a time when many blacks were abandoning the ideal of the color-blind society for which they had fought so hard, Pendleton worked to confirm it. He challenged the self-proclaimed civil-rights leaders to debates on quotas, busing, affirmative action, and other appraoches that made impossible the fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s exhortation that we should judge our fellow men, "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
As the president of the Urban League in San Diego from 1975 until 1982 and
as chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — its first black chairman — from 1982 on, Pendleton used his platforms and his ready wit to combat what
he saw as the reinstitutionalization of racism. He infuriated so-called "black
leaders" ("Who ever heard of ’white leaders’?" he would occasionally remark)
when he called them "the new racists" whose support for the Democratic Party —
to which he had once belonged — "led blacks into a political Jonestown."
He infuriated feminists when he called the concept of comparable worth "the looniest idea since Loony Tunes." Yet he delighted almost all with his humour and affability. As a staffer at the Commission (and counsel at the last hearing over which he presided), I would marvel at his ability instantly to defuse a potentially explosive situation with a quip and a smile.
In his later years, Pendleton was accused of being everything from "Uncle Tom" to "Stepin Fetchit." This could not have been easy for one who had spent the first decades of his life being called "nigger" and "coon." But while other successful blacks bowed to the social establishment’s demands that they condemn the system, Pendleton fought resolutely to maintain it, all the while maintaining his humor as well.
Two weeks ago the chairman’s drive finally out-stripped his physical capacities. He died, while exercising, at age 57. In a 1986 interview, Pendleton related how a reporter had told him, "You are strange. You are black. You don’t play by the rules ... and (Washington) has never seen anybody like you."