WASHINGTON -- Black conservatives remember it as the "Fairmont Conference." The weekend meeting in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel in December 1980 was a watershed event for black conservatism -- no similar meeting had occurred before, and none has since.
Among the 100 to 125 participants was a young Senate aide named Clarence Thomas, who is currently President Bush's controversial nominee for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, black conservatives have been a Republican minority amid a majority of liberal-to-moderate Democrats in the national black commu
"For those of us who had wandered in the desert of political and ideological alienation," Mr. Thomas would say of the conference six years later, "we had found a home, we had found each other."
Walter Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who was one of the organizers of the 1980 conference, was quoted as saying at the time: "We've been outcasts for a long time, but now is the time to come out of the closet."
Indeed, Percy Sutton, a New York City businessman and Democratic politician -- one of a very few non-conservatives to attend the conference -- joked at the time that he had come to San Francisco "to see if there really was such a thing as a black conservative."
But while black conservatives were discovering themselves and being discovered in San Francisco, they also decided -- in effect, by inaction -- to pass up a plan to organize themselves for the future.
Now, as Mr. Thomas awaits a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on whether he should be confirmed for a seat on the Supreme Court, civil rights and black-membership organizations -- regarded by black conservatives as the "liberal" enemy -- are expressing doubt about his worthiness for the post. But there is no organization of his black conservative brethren to argue in his favor.
The chief organizer of the Fairmont Conference was Thomas Sowell, who remains, as he was at that time, the generally acknowledged intellectual leader of black conservatism.
Mr. Sowell, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, had billed the San Francisco session as a "black alternatives conference" -- and he had a plan.
The meeting was to have been the first step in the creation of a black conservative organization that was to counter the "liberal" National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Black Alternatives Associates, as the organization was to be known, was to begin with chapters in six cities, including Washington.
Six years later, Mr. Thomas said in a speech to the conservative-oriented Heritage Foundation that it had been Mr. Sowell's hope, "and certainly mine," that the Fairmont Conference "would be the beginning of an alternate group -- an alternative to the consistently leftist thinking of the civil rights and the black leadership."
Mr. Sowell's plan never got off the ground.
Black conservatives "are just not organization people," said J. A. "Jay" Parker, a major figure among them. "I've been at this stuff fTC about 37 years. I've been around it longer than all the others."
Mr. Parker is president of the Lincoln Institute, a black conservative research organization, and editor of the Lincoln Review, a quarterly that serves as a sounding board for black conservative intellectuals.
Black conservatives are individualists who believe so strongly in individualism that "by definition, we can't be organized," Mr. Parker, who is now a Washington-based public relations consultant, said in an interview this week. "It's like pulling teeth just to get them out to lunch."
There was another problem with the Fairmont Conference, Mr. Thomas asserted in his 1987 speech: Some of those who attended the conference were there "solely to gain strategic political positions in the new administration," he said. That was, he added, "the undoing of a great idea."
Just before the conference, Ronald Reagan had been elected president. Mr. Parker, who had been on one of the new administration's recruiting teams, said the conference became, in effect, a political hiring hall for black conservatives who were eager to take a first-ever crack at working in government at the highest levels.
None of the conference's principal organizers accepted offers of posts in the administration. "Serious players" in conservatism -- black conservatives who were "fundamentalist" in their political philosophy -- "didn't want to get involved," Mr. Parker said.
"I don't believe in working for other people," he said. "If I were offered even a Supreme Court job, frankly, I wouldn't take it. Too routine. I'm entrepreneurial."
Mr. Parker reflected the black conservative's distaste of government. "Its only role is to protect people and property," he said. It is not the role of government, he added, to "feed, clothe and house people."
Mr. Thomas, after first refusing an appointment as assistant secretary of education for civil rights, accepted the post in 1981 -- only after he was "talked into that crazy job," Mr. Parker said.
Since then, black conservatives have begun to seek election as a means of entering the government. As a result, last year, a
black conservative, Representative Gary Franks of Connecticut, became the first black Republican to sit in the House in more than half a century.
Mr. Franks was elected by a predominantly white constituency. He and other black conservatives contend, however, that about half the black voting population is conservative but just doesn't know it.