WASHINGTON -- The Senate hearings on Judge Clarence Thomas' qualifications for a Supreme Court seat rekindled a century-old debate between black liberals and conservatives over whether blacks should rely on self-help or governmental assistance as their chief means of advancement.
In the the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that concluded Friday, the battle between the black civil rights establishment, which opposed the nominee, and black conservatives, who supported him, was recognized by the contestants themselves as an epic struggle.
"In the purely narrow sense, the immediate business before the committee is the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas," said the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in his testimony Friday. "But in the broader sweep of our domestic history, there is actually at hand a unique, transcendent moment which will significantly define America in our time -- what America is, what America can be, what America shall be."
Furious black liberals and jubilant black conservatives agreed that President Bush's nomination of Judge Thomas to replace the legendary liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court amounted to a recognition of black conservatism far beyond any it has ever received within the nation's black community.
"Black Americans need not and should not all think alike," said Larry Thompson, an attorney who practiced law with Clarence Thomas when both were on the legal staff of the Monsanto Corp. fTC in St. Louis 14 years ago and who testified for the nominee. "This diversity of opinion within the black community on how black Americans should advance is deeply rooted in our history, and it has served black Americans and this nation well over the years."
"There is as wide a divergence of views and opinions in the black community as there is in any other community," said Representative Craig Washington, D-Texas, a black liberal opponent of Judge Thomas' confirmation.
The central substantive issue in the hearings, as far as blacks who testified were concerned, was affirmative action. Black liberals denounced Judge Thomas for what they regarded as his failure, as chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to enforce affirmative-action laws. Judge Thomas' black conservative supporters lined up behind his often-stated opposition to "racial preference" policies as a means of obtaining equal opportunity.
It was Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., who reached back to the debate between black liberals and conservatives at the turn of the century.
Mr. Simon asked the Congressional Black Caucus witnesses whether it was "fair" to compare the fight over the confirmation of Judge Thomas to the debate at the turn of the century between liberal "advocate" W. E. B. DuBois, who would later found the NAACP, and conservative "accommodator" Booker T. Washington.
Mr. Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" in 1895 urged black Americans to rely on self-help -- one of Judge Thomas' themes -- rather than governmental assistance as a means of achieving equality with whites. "The white majority seized upon . . . Washington's statements, and [they] were not used for the benefit of African Americans," Mr. Simon commented.
Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan replied that the senator's analogy had validity. Mr. Conyers pointed out that John Hope Franklin, a scholar of black history, wrote a paper for the NAACP's statement of opposition to Judge Thomas that noted with distaste the parallel between the views of Booker T. Washington and Judge Thomas. Mr. Franklin concluded that "it would be unthinkable" for the NAACP to support Judge Thomas now.
There emerged from the hearings some concern among both black liberals and black conservatives about the depth of their rift and the intensity with which they criticized one another. Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus, for example, flayed Judge Thomas with some of the strongest criticism offered by any of the witnesses who appeared before the Judiciary Committee.
Representative Washington said that on the basis of "scientific, objective reason" and after "calm analysis" of Judge Thomas' speeches, writings and legal opinions, he concluded that the judge had shown "a lack of respect for the rule of law" that would make him "dangerous for all Americans" if he were elevated to the Supreme Court.
Mr. Conyers, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee and the senior member of the caucus in years of service as a congressman, found the judge guilty of being "lawless," charging that the nominee had failed to enforce civil rights laws as EEOC chairman.
"Many of the acts he has committed . . . lead us to conclude that we might not be safe with him as a guardian of those laws," Mr. Conyers said.
But there were signs of an effort to open communications between the two sides.
One prominent black conservative, speaking on the basis of anonymity, said he had asked "a representative of the other side" to suggest a "short list" of black liberals for the purpose of beginning private discussions of the antagonists' differences.
As to the nomination itself, the opposition to Judge Thomas from the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus appeared to be insufficient to head off confirmation.