WASHINGTON -- A group of black conservatives and the predominantly liberal Congressional Black Caucus confronted each other yesterday in the opening round of what promises to be a head-to-head fight over the fitness of Judge Clarence Thomas to sit as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The pro-Thomas conservatives and the anti-Thomas caucus held news conferences at which each claimed to speak for the national black community on the issue of whether President Bush's nominee, a judge in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, should be confirmed for the Supreme Court by the Senate.
At the conservatives' news conference yesterday morning, Robert L. Woodson, an independent-minded Republican -- Mr. Bush once offered him a Cabinet-level post, which he rejected -- spoke as head of the National Coalition for Self-Reliance, asserting that a "silent majority" of black Americans support the confirmation of Judge Thomas.
Mr. Woodson cited a recent USA Today poll of blacks that found that while 52 percent said Judge Thomas does not represent the views of most blacks, 54 percent approved his nomination and only 17 percent disapproved. The caucus' opposition to Judge Thomas, Mr. Woodson said, amounted to "a political lynching."
Yesterday afternoon at its news conference, the overwhelmingly Democratic caucus -- only one of its 26 members is a Republican -- presented a package of articles, speeches and quotations by Judge Thomas, and a report on his administration of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which it described as a "bill of particulars" against the nominee.
The package had been promised when the caucus announced last week that it had voted, 24-1, against his confirmation. Its lone Republican, Representative Gary Franks of Connecticut, dissented; Representative Gus Savage, D-Ill., did not vote.
"The Clarence Thomas record speaks for itself," said Representative Ed Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the caucus. "It reflects a blind commitment to an ideology which has caused him to misinterpret, misconstrue or ignore statutory laws with which he disagrees. He has revealed an allegiance to views about the fundamental rights embodied in our Constitution which are inimical to the interests of African Americans and the vast majority of the American public."
Asked to comment on the results of the poll showing that a majority of blacks support Judge Thomas' nomination, Mr. Towns said the poll results soon would be reversed. "Black Americans don't know the record," he said.
Representative Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., added: "There is no support in our communities for this man."
The competition between the black conservatives and the caucus for the support of the black community increased the pressure on two major black-membership organizations that have yet to take formal positions on the issue.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People postponed a decision when it met in its annual convention last week. The National Urban League is likely to take up the issue when it holds its annual conference next week.
The NAACP's decision is important to Judge Thomas' fortunes. The NAACP is the major member of the 185-organization Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the lobbying group that was instrumental in blocking Senate confirmation of Robert H. Bork for a Supreme Court seat in 1987.
Meanwhile, 138 members of the House, most of them conservative-leaning Republicans but including a few Democrats, wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday to state their support for Judge Thomas. The committee will begin hearings on Judge Thomas' fitness for confirmation in September.
Among those signing the letter was Mr. Franks, the Republican odd-man-out on the Congressional Black Caucus.