Mfume sent two messages about Supreme Court Justice Thomas

February 01, 1997|By Hanley J. Norment

YOUR EDITORIAL of Jan. 20, ''Mfume rebukes his own,'' missed the mark. First, Justice Clarence Thomas was never slated to appear at a ''youth rally.'' Nor was the sponsoring group a Boys and Girls Club. Adult Delawareans were the sponsors and expected attendees at the planned fund-raiser.

Young people were to be involved only as some of the proceeds were promised to the Boys and Girls Club of Delaware.

Thus Mr. Thomas was misleading in saying, as he withdrew, that he was doing so ''for the safety and well-being of the children involved.''

Marylanders were involved only because the sizable meeting hall needed is on our side of the state line; and Maryland and NAACPers acceded to the request of our Delaware counterparts to join them in peacefully conveying the viewpoint, widely held by African-Americans, that the justice, as a New York Times editorial put it, is the ''cruelest'' justice on the Supreme Court and that his decisions are most harmful to blacks.

Second, from the outset we planned a lawful, peaceful protest, as our state police-issued permit indicates. In focusing on the rights of this powerful official, you seem to forget that we also have free-speech guarantees, even for symbolic speech.

Third, while you emphasized that Mr. Mfume ''didn't like'' our planned activity ''a bit,'' he certainly didn't highlight that to us. In brief conversation with me, he did mention a few points made in his speech.

But he conveyed no indication that he was displeased, neither did he, by tone or tenor, appear to be criticizing or chastising.

In fact, he stated, as a backdrop, that he ''believes only about 25 percent'' of what he reads in the media and wanted me to know (in advance) about the speech just in case it was reported out of context.

Consequently, when I first heard a report of it on radio, I was in such disbelief that I called the station seeking its news source and later called Mr. Mfume's office requesting a copy of his full text, which doesn't exist.

Sadly, after seeing the speech quoted in respected newspapers and viewing TV film made as it was being delivered and, as well, reflecting on my conversation with our leader, I now believe that such a tactic, which was later followed up with expressions of ''support,'' was intended to send two different messages -- one to NAACPers involved and quite another to the public.

Fourth, especially since the NAACP executive had just returned from overseas, if he and/or his staff had requested information from any of us directly involved on either side of the state line, they would have quickly been provided updates beyond the reports previously sent to NAACP headquarters.

With added information and this opportunity for dialogue before Mr. Mfume sounded off to the press, this whole sad, unfortunate, unnecessary and embarrassing matter could have been avoided, desired.

Then our president could have known that our goals and tactics were within the rubric of NAACP traditions, policies and practices and, moreover, that he and we equally value free speech.

Finally, based on our research as to who Mr. Thomas is, how he became prominent after 1981 and what he stands for and why, we maintain, as we differ with your view, that the justice is not a positive or fit role model for anyone.

Former Harvard law professor Derrick Albert Bell is among the constitutional scholars who are beginning a careful study of the Thomas enigma. Notes Bell: ''We've never had a black in a position of such national official authority whose positions were so hostile to blacks and their interests.''

In contrast to Justice Thomas, someone in the likeness of the late Justice Hugo Black, an Alabama native and former Ku Klux Klansman who became a leading advocate of civil liberties and civil rights, would be an ideal of a role model of conscious, character and compassion.

Hanley J. Norment

Silver Spring

The writer is president of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches.

Pub Date: 2/01/97

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