WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP) is in another crisis, with its executive director Benjamin L. Hooks having jumped or been pushed from his leadership role.
This sad internal dispute illustrates anew the decline of an 83-year-old civil-rights organization that during the 1940s, '50s and '60s was the most feared, hated, praised organization of its kind in the land.
Before we bury the NAACP, though, let me say that internal strife has always dogged it. At the end of World War I there were blacks like James Weldon Johnson trying to wrest control from the whites who had founded the organization to fight lynchings. In 1934 there was the brutal internal war in which Walter White's ''no racial segregation whatsoever'' view triumphed over the ''accommodate some segregation'' posture of W.E.B. DuBois. Then the 1949 conflict over White marrying a white woman, Poppy Cannon.
There was the tragic legal war between the NAACP and its split-off Legal Defense Fund, through which Thurgood Marshall won great court victories. Then we saw the 1983 Amos 'n' Andy spectacle in which board chairman Margaret Bush Wilson unilaterally suspended Mr. Hooks as executive director, only to have the board vote 49 to 5 to repudiate her, keep him and ask Ms. Wilson to resign as board chairman.
This mess haunted a still-divided NAACP last year when a still-bitter Ms. Wilson opposed Mr. Hooks and the NAACP board that fired her when she supported the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yet, we must not be suckered by some of the nonsense being written about ''what's wrong with the NAACP.'' I read one suggestion that it's time for the NAACP to get away from litigation and focus on crime, drugs, school dropouts and the woes of black families. Anyone who understands these problems knows that they are partly the creations of government, business and industry, the provocateurs of blatant injustice in America. To suggest that the NAACP can solve them is ludicrous.
It is plain dumb to suggest that the legal initiatives pushed so zealously by Thurgood Marshall aren't needed any more. Look at the recent Supreme Court vote, with Justice Thomas in the majority, sabotaging the Voting Rights Act. Look at Justice Thomas's ''hide-it-till-he's- confirmed'' appeals-court decision saying affirmative action to help women get broadcast licenses violates the Constitution.
For generations to come, the downtrodden of America stand to become the victims of more litigation designed to strip away their constitutional rights and protections, and they'll need NAACP lawyers with the dedication and skill exhibited by Justice Marshall in perpetuity.
Finally, let me tell you how to judge the 15-year tenure of Ben Hooks. Look back over the seven decades of black leadership and you'll see that the successes of the NAACP executive secretary varied according to who was president of the United States.
James Weldon Johnson had grievous troubles with Woodrow Wilson, whose wife was an ardent segregationist. Walter White got little support from Franklin D. Roosevelt, but great help from wife Eleanor. Roy Wilkins served in the NAACP's heyday because he enjoyed the support of presidents who truly believed in racial equality -- John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Hooks has erred badly on some things, such as his foolish embrace of the former Washington mayor Marion Barry, a drug-abusing liar. But do not forget that Mr. Hooks suffered eight years of a president, Ronald Reagan, who wouldn't even talk to him and other civil-rights leaders; and now more than three years of George Bush, who has poisoned the mood of America with his baseless cries about ''quotas'' and ''unfair preferences.'' Mr. Hooks has done damned well given the circumstances of his tenure.
Black people and their white friends need not panic. The NAACP will rise above the current childish power struggle within its board and once again become a towering force for justice.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.