Even before Judge Clarence Thomas was formally nominated by President Bush for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, the head of a major civil-rights organization privately predicted Mr. Bush's choice, but with no glee. For his organization, he said, determining what position to take on the nomination would require some ''soul searching.''
''And I mean for you to take that literally,'' he added.
Among the nation's most powerful civil-rights organizations, particularly those with large and predominantly black memberships, the soul searching has begun. In the congressional black caucus it ended in a decision to oppose the nomination.
In Atlanta, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, called the process ''painful.''
In Houston, where the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was holding its annual national convention, its board of directors took up the Thomas question, split over it, and decided to postpone action on it while they reviewed Judge Thomas' record. ''We're not going to be stampeded into mass hysteria just because someone says we're waffling,'' said Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP. ''What vTC we're doing is what we've always done. We're not waffling.''
If the nomination of Judge Thomas is a problem for individual organizations, it may be even a greater one for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the 185-group lobbying coalition in Washington.
Mr. Hooks is president of the Leadership Conference, and the NAACP is probably its most influential member. But last week, the National Abortion Rights Action League, also a member, demanded that the Senate deny confirmation of Judge Thomas, accusing him of having suggested in some of his writings rejection of a woman's right to choose abortion. ''I think it has the potential to bring down this nominee. . . . I think it could be the smoking gun,'' said Kate Michelman, NARAL's executive director.
NARAL's position could prevent the Leadership Conference from reaching a consensus on whether or not Judge Thomas should be confirmed. It was the Leadership Conference's campaign in 1988 against the Senate confirmation of Robert Bork which denied Judge Bork a Supreme Court.
If the Leadership Conference is unable to reach a consensus on Judge Thomas' confirmation, it most likely will simply take ''no position,'' something it has done fewer than a dozen times on more than 400 judicial nominations over the last decade.
The issue is also a matter of what might be called hardball judicial politics. ''We have to look at the practicalities of the situation,'' said one leader, definitely not for attribution. ''Who the hell else can you get?''
Only hours before his nomination of Judge Thomas on July 1, Mr. Bush was reportedly wavering. Two close advisers, White House counsel Boyden Gray and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, backed Judge Thomas, according to a knowledgeable source. Mr. Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, reportedly wanted the president to name a Hispanic, citing what he called Judge Thomas' ''limitations'' -- the possibility that the major civil-rights organizations would actively oppose the nomination.
The president decided to go with Judge Thomas, partly on his belief -- or ''informed hope,'' as one source put it -- that the major civil-rights organizations would not mount an all-out campaign against his choice. At the same time, the source said, Mr. Bush did not expect civil-rights leaders to approve Judge Thomas and was prepared for them to be critical of him.
There was a precedent of sorts for Mr. Bush's expectations. Last year, when he nominated Mr. Thomas to be a judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, there were signs that civil-rights organizations were prepared to campaign vigorously against him. Most opposed to Mr. Thomas' confirmation was Althea T. L. Simmons, then the NAACP's Washington bureau director and chief lobbyist here. Ms. Simmons died earlier this year.
On the eve of the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearing, Ms. Simmons -- at Mr. Thomas' request -- had a two-hour ''eyeball-to-eyeball'' meeting, as she called it, with the nominee. The next day, the NAACP issued a statement that on the basis of that meeting, it would neither endorse nor oppose Mr. Thomas' nomination. He was confirmed easily.
There was a catch, however. Should President Bush nominate Judge Thomas for the Supreme Court, the statement warned, his nominee would be much more closely scrutinized. That scrutiny is now under way. Said Mr. Hooks of the NAACP's decision to postpone action on Judge Thomas this time, ''The fact is, we are so unfavorably impressed with his known record that we are forced to look further.''
Earlier, he had summarized the civil-rights establishment's dilemma, saying of Judge Thomas' nomination: ''But we're happy that it met at least half of our litmus test, and that is, he is an African American.''
While the NAACP tries to decide what to do, the issue of Judge Thomas' nomination is likely to come up next before the National Urban League, another major civil-rights organization, which will open its annual conference in Atlanta July 21.
When President Bush named Judge Thomas, John E. Jacob, president of the league, issued a statement welcoming ''the appointment of an African American jurist.''
''Obviously Judge Thomas is not Justice Marshall,'' Mr. Jacob said, ''but if he were, this administration would not have appointed him.''
That probably expresses the civil-rights leaders' dilemma as well as anything they have said.