LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.--The nomination of Clarence Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court has precipitated a recurrence of the W.E.B. Du Bois-Booker T. Washington debate that tore black America at the turn of the century.
Du Bois' integrationist approach, leading to the founding of the NAACP, won out and gained a foothold that has persisted to this day. Washington was seen by the silk-stocking scholars and elitists of the Niagara Movement as a crude Southerner who lacked sophistication, and his self-help philosophy was relegated a subordinate place in black history.
As the century unfolded and other interest groups organized and became active advocates for their interests, the NAACP and the Urban League entered in the name of the black masses into a series of partnerships with labor and later women's groups, gays and others, and the black masses routinely followed.
During the turbulent Sixties, when the civil-rights movement burst forth and new organizations such as SCLC, SNCC, CORE, the Black Panthers and others came into being, the establishment dominance of the NAACP and its allies faced a serious challenge. Corporate resources and moxie skillfully steered the new organizations under an umbrella directed and controlled by the NAACP and its allies, or the organizations were eliminated.
There is no clearer illustration of this than the great march on Washington in 1963, when speeches were censored and participation tightly controlled.
The signs today are that the liberal monopoly in black American is fading. The election of the black conservative Gary Franks to Congress from Connecticut and the rise of conservative writers like Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell are signs of a strong challenge to the perceived liberal mindset of black America.
Many of militants from the Sixties -- Eldridge Cleaver, Roy Innis, James Meredith and others -- have moved from left to right. Judge Thomas and Clarence Pendleton before him made the same transition. So did Tony Brown, the longtime host of ''Tony Brown's Journal,'' who recently joined the Republican Party.
The confirmation of Judge Thomas would create a serious alternative to the conventional wisdom that now dominates black thought and direction. It would challenge the NAACP's prime position in black America and question its relevancy in today's world.
There are those in black America who question the support given by the NAACP's executive director, Ben Hooks, to the deposed Washington Mayor Marion Barry. Berry's crack-smoking and womanizing were not hearsay; like the Rodney King beating, they were on tape and many Americans of all colors saw for themselves. Yet Mr. Hooks gave his support in the name of the NAACP, despite the association's commitments against drugs and in support of a strong, viable family structure for black America.
Yet, while consoling Marion Barry, Mr. Hooks castigates Louis Farrakhan. Mr. Farrakhan, like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, has a broad black following. Judge Thomas himself has a more balanced view of Mr. Farrakhan, as the much maligned Booker T. Washington years ago attempted a rapprochement with Marcus Garvey.
Blacks throughout the nation believe that the black political and organizational leadership pollyparrots the party lines of other groups also in opposition to Judge Thomas. These leaders are doing the bidding for abortion groups, women's groups, gays and every conceivable interest group.
Judge Thomas' nomination and the questions it raises comes at a time when many black Americans believe that the civil-rights movement is stagnant and needs a change in priority. The
question of self-help (Booker T. Washington) or social programs (W.E.B. Du Bois) is being asked again as America heads into the 21st century. How that question is answered this time poses dire consequences for the NAACP, the Urban League and the liberal, Democratic base that dominates black America.
One branch of the NAACP in Compton, California, has challenged the association's opposition to Judge Thomas and voted to support his nomination. The Compton branch has taken a position advocating economic self-help instead of government social programs and affirmative action. Its president addressed the question in a recent local newspaper article in a manner that recalls the Du Bois-Washington debates. He wrote: ''Race-based affirmative action in large, white-owned businesses is valuable primarily to the middle class, who have the background to land such jobs. What about the poor people who haven't had the resources that the middle class have had?''
Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise sounded like a latter-day James Monroe Trotter challenging W.E.B. Du Bois when he remarked recently: ''It's a nod to the others to let the political lynching begin. The NAACP had made it clear they place the interest of their liberal elitist allies above the interest of their poor black constituents.''
Once the Thomas nomination is history the black liberal-conservative debate will remain to be resolved. Black America has faced this fork in the road before. Du Bois' ''talented tenth'' has always survived and done well in America. It is the average and the disadvantaged blacks who have always had needs and need help today.
The black liberal tradition has historically concentrated on the black classes. The black conservative concept has conceptually been concerned with the black masses. It may be time to consider black conservative alternatives.
Booker Griffin is a free-lance journalist.