Thomas Issue Split Black Leaders from Grass Roots Consequences of 'the Gap' Being Discussed

October 20, 1991|By ARCH PARSONS

Washington -- Throughout the Senate's roller-coaster deliberations on the fitness of Clarence Thomas to be a Supreme Court justice, there was at least one constant: From President Bush's nomination of Judge Thomas on July 1 to the moment of his confirmation by the Senate on Tuesday, grass-roots black America supported the nominee.

That support remained steadfast despite opposition to Judge Thomas from some of the most powerful elements of the black civil rights establishment. Meanwhile, the establishment leaders themselves were divided on the Thomas issue.

Various public opinion polls taken over the three-and-a-half months of Judge Thomas' quest for confirmation -- including before and after his five days of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and before and after Professor Anita Hill dropped her spectacular bomb of sex-harassment charges against him -- found, at every step along the way, either a majority of the nation's grass-roots black community favoring his confirmation or, at the least, more blacks supporting him than opposing him. For example, a Los Angeles Times poll on Oct. 14 showed 61 percent of all blacks supporting Judge Thomas, up from 55 percent in September.

It would be easy to say that black grass-roots support for Judge Thomas was just a matter of racial loyalty. Surely that was a factor. Roger Wilkins, a history professor and liberal civil rights advocate who vehemently opposed the judge's confirmation, said that for much of the black community -- too much, by his analysis -- the reasoning was simple: "Is he black? OK, I go for him."

Baltimore's Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, said the black community was inclined to "give the benefit of doubt to one of our own." Judge Thomas, while adamantly denying Professor Hill's sex-harassment charges, was "the benefactor of community benevolence," Mr. Mfume said.

But Mr. Wilkins also pointed out that the polls indicated "a profound difference in perception between the African American rank and file and its leaders."

That difference has come to be known as "the gap." It, and the consequences it may have for the black establishment leadership, are among the topics already under discussion among the leaders.

President Bush seized an opportunity on Thursday to score his own point against the leaders. "I don't think the civil rights leaders all speak for the American people on a matter of this nature," he said. "If they did, how come support for Judge Thomas [was] so strong among black Americans?"

Ronald Walters, a Howard University political scientist who opposed Judge Thomas so vehemently that he wrote of his belief that the judge had abandoned his "blackness," said, "There are going to be serious postmortems about the capacity of [the major black civil rights organizations] to provide leadership."

Two of the nation's most powerful and influential black civil rights organizations opposed Judge Thomas from the get-go.

The opposition of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- the dean of the civil rights establishment, with a history of racial leadership dating back to the turn of the century -- triggered the massive campaign against him led by the huge Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

The NAACP is the founder and backbone of the Leadership Conference, a lobbying coalition of some 185 organizations representing blacks, women, labor, the disabled, Hispanics and Asians, among those elements in the American populace that consider themselves to be in distress. There could have been be no Leadership Conference campaign without the participation of the NAACP.

The NAACP's opposition to Judge Thomas was in some ways a matter of honor. Its executive director, Benjamin L. Hooks, said the organization could do no differently after the nominee's record showed him to be a critic of the legendary Thurgood Marshall. As leader of the NAACP's legal team in 1954, Mr. Marshall commanded the successful effort to convince the Supreme Court to strike down school desegregation. Mr. Hooks said that Judge Thomas' record showed him also to be a critic of Mr. Marshall's legal argument in the desegregation decision.

Moreover, of course, it was Justice Marshall, retiring after 24 years as the first and only black on the Supreme Court, whom Judge Thomas was aspiring to replace. That, the NAACP said, could not happen.

Even after Professor Hill leveled her accusations at Judge Thomas, the NAACP issued a statement in which it said that in the new allegations aside, "our opposition . . . represented a balanced examination of his record, which we found inimical to the best interests of African Americans."

The second major black-establishment organization joining the offensive against Judge Thomas was the Congressional Black Caucus, consisting of 25 Democrats and one Republican in the House. (The lone Republican, Representative Gary Franks of Connecticut, opted out.)

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