In the spring of 1983 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People went through the most bitter, public internal power struggle in its 82-year history. On the surface, the clash was simply between personalities, Chairman Margaret Bush Wilson, a St. Louis attorney, and Benjamin Hooks, the executive director. Ms. Wilson suspended Hooks in connection with the NAACP's weakened financial condition at the time. Hooks fought back and the board voted no-confidence in Ms. Wilson. In fact, the division was fundamentally philosophical, the same cleavage that now divides black America over President Bush's nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Which philosophy should now dominate efforts to advance the interests of blacks? Self-help or government? Economic growth or economic redistribution? The spirit of enterprise or affirmative action?
I first met Margaret Bush Wilson in 1977, when she led the NAACP'ss challenge of the Environmental Protection Administration. The EPA's Joan Claybrook was attempting to redefine vans as sedans, for the purpose of including them in the Clean Air Act regulations on mileage allowances. Those citizens in need of larger vehicles, you see, were buying vans instead of sedans. It was part of a general regulatory squeeze that was forcing Chrysler, the weakest of the Big Three, out of business. Chrysler, which had led the shift to vans under Lee lacocca's predecessor, John Riccardo, announced that if the EPA regs were allowed to stand, the company would be forced to close its oldest plant in Detroit, the Jefferson Plant. Almost all the workers at that plant were black.
Ordinarily, the NAACP would defer to the other members of the Liberal Coalition, in this case the environmentalists. It was thus something of a shock to see the organization put the economic interests of blacks above that of the white, liberal agenda, which of course took root in the Great Depression and FDR's New Deal. Having achieved the civil rights gains of the previous generation, the NAACP had been forced to this philosophical fork in the road. Ms. Wilson seemed quite prepared to take the path of entrepreneurial capitalism for the next stage of black advancement, even though it might disturb the Liberal Coalition. The horrendous 1982 recession, which was brutal to black America, set the stage for the 1983 struggle between Wilson and Hooks, with Hooks representing the faction that favored redistribution -- via welfare checks, job quotas and affirmative action. The other components of the Coalition, not thrilled with quotas anyway, were not happy with an NAACP that would not pay its dues automatically on the other elements that glued together the coalition.
Hooks won the internal struggle, partly out of concern that the NAACP was too weak financially and too dependent on contributions from white liberals to attempt Wilson's more independent path. Uncertainty about Reaganism and the course of the economy were also critical. Kenneth B. Clark, a black scholar, wrote in The New York Times of July 14, 1983: "Given the present neoconservative climate and the exploitation of that climate by the present Administration, the civil rights movement as a whole will suffer a critical if not fatal setback if the present internal problems of the once formidable NAACP are not remedied by radical decisions as quickly as possible...Black social scientists, critics and civil rights activists have been aware of these internal problems for at least five years...We were aware that the NAACP was totally unprepared to deal with the increasingly complex patterns of racial injustice and seemed incapable of developing appropriate strategies for coping with them."
Ms. Wilson left the NAACP board in 1984 and devoted herself full time to her law practice, the Monsanto board of directors and that of the Police Foundation. I called her in 1987 to try to persuade her to support Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court, but immediately struck out. It turned out her father was the plaintiff in a 1947 suit to strike down St. Louis' racial covenants. He won in the Supreme Court. Years later, Bork wrote a scholarly paper arguing the Court's decision was in error, although he argued the covenants could be struck down on other grounds. Anyone who would split hairs over racial covenants, she insisted, was simply not her cup of tea. In 1988, I invited her and Judge Bork to the Polyconomics annual winter conference in Boca Raton, where they shared the same platform. Judge Bork was clearly overruled.
I called Margaret yesterday after reading the absolutely elegant commencement speech Clarence Thomas delivered in 1985, reprinted in yesterday's issue of The New York Times. Judge Thomas, I recalled, worked as a Monsanto lawyer some years ago. Maybe they knew each other. At least I'd find out what she thought of him and if she supported his nomination.
She knew him, she said, but not via Monsanto, as she had sat on the board there after he'd left St. Louis for the Reagan Administration. "Clarence lived in my house in the summer of 1974," she told me, to my utter amazement. "I know him well/We've kept in touch over the years, and he actually called me from Kennebunkport [after President Bush offered him the nomination]. He told me I was the first lawyer who had taken him seriously."
Truth is stranger than fiction, and we have here quite a coincidence. How did it happen? In June of '74, Margaret chanced to sit next to then Missouri Attorney General John Danforth at a St. Louis dinner event. He told her he had just hired a brilliant graduate of Yale Law School, who happened to be black. He was arriving in St. Louis soon and needed a place to stay while he was studying for the Missouri bar exam. Margaret recalls telling him, without even thinking: "He can stay in my house," then wondering what made her act so impulsively.
For at least 20 years I've been watching the horizon for a black leader to emerge on the Growth Path. There had to be one, I'd always felt, as power surely abhors a vacuum. I'd always assumed it would occur in the political realm, a black governor or U.S. Senator or black activist, a la Jesse Jackson. It was dismaying to see Margaret Bush Wilson's efforts in that direction snuffed out in the struggle with Ben Hooks. It never occurred to me that this leadership position would be taken by a Supreme Court Justice, but Clarence Thomas is clearly that leader. Read his Savannah State College commencement speech of June 9, 1985 from yesterday's Times and you will know he is that man:
I have seen two roads from my perch a few humble feet above the madding crowd. On the first a race of people is rushing mindlessly down a highway of sweet, intoxicating destruction, with all its bright lights and grand promises constructed by social scientists and politicians. To the side, there is a seldom used, overgrown road leading through the valley of life with all its pitfalls and obstacles. It is the road -- the old-fashioned road -- traveled by those who endured slavery, who endured Jim Crowism, who, endured hatred. It is the road that might reward hard work and discipline, that might reward intelligence, that might be fair and provide equal opportunity. But there are no guarantees.
You must choose. The lure of the highway is seductive and enticing. But the destruction is certain. To travel the road of hope and opportunity is hard and difficult, but there is a chance that you might somehow, some way, with the help of God, make it.