While most black women's groups are reserving judgment on Thomas . . . one sorority considers adopting the slogan 'Give Clarence a chance'

August 20, 1991|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON ... — WASHINGTON -- Black women's groups, whose members are among the most determined voters in the nation, are not rushing to join the major civil rights organizations in opposing Senate confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas for a seat on the Supreme Court.

Among a dozen or so major black women's organizations, President Bush's nomination of a black conservative has produced a diversity of reactions. To date, one group favors Judge Thomas and another appears to be leaning toward him, while only one organization has made a formal decision to oppose him. Another group has announced its neutrality, while still others have not yet reached a conclusion -- and some do not intend to.

Probably the best known and most influential of the black women's organizations, the National Council of Negro Women, made up of 32 affiliate organizations with 4 million members, has not yet taken a formal position.

Dorothy I. Height, NCNW president, said that while the council is "concerned" about Judge Thomas' judicial views and his record as chairman of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it will "wait to see what he has to say for himself" at Senate Judiciary Committee hearings scheduled to begin on Sept. 10.

Ms. Height, one of the nation's most respected civil rights leaders, is a member of the executive council of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the big Washington lobbying coalition that is directing the campaign against Judge Thomas' confirmation. When the executive council of the Leadership Conference met recently to set in motion the coalition's drive against Judge Thomas, it was illustrative of Ms. Height's temporary neutrality that she managed to be absent.

Her absence did not mean, however, that Judge Thomas has received anything like a passing grade from the NCNW. Pointedly referring to Judge Thomas' emphasis on "self-reliance" and his antipathy toward affirmative action, Ms. Height said:

"We are the people who have survived through self-help. That is how the black family has survived. But there is a proper role for government, and we want Clarence Thomas to recognize that role, rather than to associate government support with dependency."

Another umbrella of black women's organizations, the Atlanta-based Black Women's Agenda, a public-policy organization of mainly sororities and church groups with an estimated 8 million members, is also waiting for the Senate hearings.

Dolly D. Adams, the organization's president, said recently that the Thomas issue was "not as black and white" as the case of Robert H. Bork, who was denied confirmation for a Supreme Court seat in 1987. "But there still are some shades that trouble us," she said.

Mrs. Adams said the board of directors of the Black Women's Agenda is scheduled to meet in Washington Sept. 13 -- three days after the Senate hearings on Judge Thomas begin.

Formally favoring Judge Thomas is the 7,000-member National Black Nurses' Association. Its board of directors announced last Friday that it had voted to endorse Judge Thomas' nomination, and made public a letter to President Bush that said, "The uniqueness of [Judge Thomas'] background promises to provide important voice on the court."

Zeta Phi Beta, a black sorority with 20,000 members, is the

organization that appears to be leaning toward support. The group, which will meet this weekend, is considering adopting the slogan, "Give Clarence a chance."

Unlike other black-affairs groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and majority-white women's groups, such as the Women's Legal Defense Fund, which have announced strong opposition to Judge Thomas, only one organization comprised solely, or at least overwhelmingly, of black women has thus far taken that stance.

One of the nation's major black sororities, Sigma Gamma Rho, with a national membership of 40,000 women, is the black women's group that has adopted -- for the present -- a neutral posture, preferring to wait until Judge Thomas' views have been examined by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last month, the sorority's board of directors adopted a resolution asking that Judge Thomas be given a "fair and impartial" hearing.

However, the two largest black sororities, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta, each with at least 100,000 members, have not yet decided what they will do.

All of the black women's organizations will be listening closely for whatever the Senate committee can elicit from Judge Thomas concerning his views on abortion; his earlier writings have indicated that he leans toward an anti-abortion view.

But unlike some majority-white women's organizations that have denounced Judge Thomas mainly because of his views on abortion, black women's groups appear to place less of a priority on that issue.

"We're more concerned about his views on race and discrimination," said the leader of one organization."

The caution of the black women on that issue is likely to get particular attention from senators up for re-election next year.

The proportion of black women voting in recent elections, national and local, has been consistently among the highest of any national group -- male or female, white or black -- according to Sonia Jarvis, president of the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is keeping that in mind when it targets senators on the Judge Thomas confirmation vote, senators such as five southern Democrats who would not have been elected in 1988 without the favorable vote of blacks in their states -- and who will be standing for re-election in 1992.

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