For a moment, at least, they were able to recapture the old spirit of struggle. "We're gonna stand! And fight!" shouted Benjamin L. Hooks. "Until hell freezes over!" The audience rose and cheered wildly. But the mood at the 82nd annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Houston last week was mostly one of frustration. George Bush had just lifted sanctions against South Africa, a cause dear to the civil-rights movement. The president had already put the movement on the defensive by casting the civil rights legislation before Congress as a "quota" bill. And by naming Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Bush had presented leaders of the NAACP with a vexing dilemma. Oppose Thomas and an organization devoted to the advancement of African-Americans risked denying one of their own a seat on the highest court in the land. Support him, and they stood to empower a man who opposes policies most black leaders have championed for decades.
For now, the NAACP decided to do nothing. The organization's indecision came at a critical time. Thomas may need all the support he can get to survive his Senate confirmation hearings. He is under attack for hypocrisy, and his personal life has come under close scrutiny by the press (box). The Congressional Black Caucus voted overwhelmingly last week to oppose his nomination. The fact that the NAACP chose to stay on the sidelines underscored a painful reality. The traditional black civil-rights leadership is appearing increasingly irrelevant and powerless. The NAACP's executive director, the venerable Hooks, acknowledged to NEWSWEEK that the movement is "like a man treading water, we're just holding our own."
Those problems are symptomatic of the larger crisis in black leadership. Many civil-rights groups are feeling defeated. Last month Rep. William H. Gray III announced he would resign from his post as Democratic whip to head the United Negro College Fund. He was motivated in part by frustration, shared by many members of the black caucus, over their inability to help blacks through their work in Congress. But the problems of black leaders go beyond their inability to sway white politicians. Increasingly, it seems, they may not speak for all or even most black Americans.
There was once a time when the NAACP, along with other civil-rights groups, led the way on the great moral issues of the day, fighting against segregation and discrimination. Today the organization seems hung up on more marginal matters. In 1989 the NAACP joined in (and later withdrew from) a suit against The New York Times because its real-estate advertisements did not include enough black models. NAACP leaders are aware of their need to rejuvenate the ranks. The theme of the convention was "Preparing a New Generation for the Struggle." But much of the new generation doesn't seem very interested, and the NAACP seems unable to reach them.
In part, the very success of the civil-rights movement is to blame. It helped create a black middle class that has some different interests from the so-called black underclass. Black doctors and lawyers care about capital-gains-tax cuts and more federal college-loan money. The poor worry about the basics of housing and health care. Though most blacks are concerned about discrimination, there is no single agenda that can satisfy them all. Most African-American leaders are still old-fashioned liberals, but polls show that about a third of all blacks identify themselves as conservative.
The black leadership suffers from a widening generation gap. Bernard Walker of Los Angeles, a 31-year-old alternate delegate at the NAACP convention, accused the organization's leaders of losing touch with young black America. "We've been in a reactive mode. We've lost the edge," he said. But younger blacks aren't stepping forward to challenge their elders. "There is no younger generation of black civil-rights leaders," says a Hill staffer, Karin Kimbrough, 22. More economic opportunity may be one reason. The ministry--a pipeline into the civil-rights movement--used to be about the only path of advancement. Now young blacks are freer to prosper in the private sector.
Civil-rights groups have tried to recruit young blacks. But even Yvonne Finnie, NAACP national youth director, concedes a paucity of members between the ages of 26 and 40. "They feel the NAACP is an older organization that is surviving off its laurels," she says. The average age of NAACP board members is about 50; Hooks is 66.
African-American leaders might be more successful recruiters if they had a new message to offer. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the most high-profile black leader, shrewdly acknowledged this in his speech to the NAACP last week. He warned against getting caught in the ploys of the Bush administration. By attacking quotas and invoking the specter of Willie Horton, the Republicans were trying to divide the races. Don't take the bait, said Jackson. Blacks would be better off focusing on economic empowerment than fighting losing battles over civil rights. "We do not have the luxury of just espousing a plan for racial justice outside a context of economic growth and world peace," said Jackson.
Turning away from the NAACP's historic focus on civil rights is a provocative notion--especially coming from Jackson, who first gained national prominence as a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr. But at least it was a challenging suggestion in a forum better known for worn rhetoric. The NAACP may have been unable to decide what to do about Clarence Thomas last week. But his nomination did succeed in setting off a debate, and debates have a way of producing fresh ideas--something that the black leadership badly needs right now.
While Judge Clarence Thomas made courtesy calls on senators last week, he faced a steady trickle of troubling stories about his past. No one was ready to predict that his nomination was in jeopardy, but at the weekend, White House advisers were nervous. "This could be death by Chinese water torture," said one.
The most problematic revelation concerned a speech Thomas delivered to black business-school graduates in Atlanta in 1983, when he was the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In one passage, written by the then EEOC aide Armstrong Williams, Thomas called Nation of Islam minister, Louis Farrakhan, "a man I have admired for more than a decade." The quote was part of an innocuous self-help exhortation. But the Farrakhan link deeply upset Jewish leaders. Thomas issued a statement, saying, "I repudiate the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan or anyone else." But some Jewish leaders demanded that Thomas further distance himself from the controversial minister.
None of the other stories, in themselves, were cause for much political alarm. Thomas's sister, a Democrat, expressed some discomfort at his criticism of her former dependence on welfare. Aides acknowledged that he had gotten into Yale Law through affirmative-action admissions. He had occasionally "puffed" marijuana at Holy Cross and, perhaps, Yale. But he had disclosed that to the FBI in 1989 when he was nominated as an appeals court judge, and George Bush said it wasn't a problem. The IRS placed a lien in 1984 on an apartment Thomas had owned, but he paid when notified of the filing error that led to the problem.
Friends said Thomas was taken aback by the ferocity of the "presidential level" scrutiny. One Bush aide mused, privately, about the uses of a Thomas defeat. It would, he said, allow the GOP to woo more blacks--and appeal to another voting bloc by appointing a Hispanic to the court. But White House aides aware that "water torture" tactics helped kill Robert Bork's chances in 1987, said Bush would campaign hard for his nominee.