Has The Civil Rights Movement Gone `Terribly Wrong'?

On a Saturday afternoon earlier this summer, Cub Scout Pack 409 of New Ellenton, S. C., arrived at Richardson's Lake in nearby Aiken County for a day of swimming and picnicking. But the excursion was cut short. The lake's manager refused to admit two of the scouts, who were black, so the group turned back rather than leave two members at the gate.

Enter the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Within hours of learning of the incident, Nelson B. Rivers III, director of its South Carolina chapter, won the resignation of the lake's manager and got the property's owners to adopt a policy of nondiscrimination. The next day, Rivers took his family swimming at Richardson's Lake.

The NAACP made its reputation winning fights such as this. But today, as the civil rights movement battles the nation's tilt to the right on economic, social, and legal policy, it's a lot harder to win in Washington than in places like Aiken. Civil rights leaders are having to prove their relevance--and their once-unquestioned right to speak for 30 million black Americans. "Something has gone terribly wrong," says Howard University political scientist Ronald W. Walters. "Many blacks are turned off by the civil rights movement."

Civil rights organizations have been hit hard financially by the recession. Moreover, the once formidable civil rights coalition--which includes blacks, labor, Hispanics, churches, and women's groups--is showing signs of strain. It failed to persuade the White House to continue sanctions against South Africa or to stop the GOP from calling rights activists "quota seekers."

EXPLOSIVE. The malaise couldn't come at a worse time. When Congress reconvenes on Sept. 10, the movement will be fighting two battles at once: to defeat the nomination of U. S. Court of Appeals Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and to win approval of a measure that makes winning job-bias suits easier. If Congress passes any civil rights legislation, it will be far weaker than the measure President Bush vetoed last year. And barring any slipups in theconfirmation process, Thomas is expected to join the high court next month.The Thomas nomination in particular has set off a bomb in the civil rights tent. It exploded tensions that had long been building between civil rights leaders and growing numbers of blacks who believe that self-help efforts work better than government programs. Nearly every civil rights group--with the exception of the National Urban League, which is neutral--opposes Thomas. But he has considerable grass-roots support. Larkin Campbell, a Columbia (S. C.) lawyer and NAACP member in favor of Thomas, says the group's leaders "don't necessarily represent the opinions of their own membership."

NAACP Chairman William F. Gibson concedes his group lost touch with younger blacks several years ago but insists things are back on track. "The idea that we are out of the mainstream is wrong," he says. True, a new BUSINESS WEEK/Louis Harris & Associates poll shows 88% of blacks feel the NAACP is an effective representative. But 56% of those polled support Thomas' confirmation, despite the opposition of civil rights groups (page 33 39 ).

Civil rights leaders dismiss such polls as the views of the uninformed. Says William L. Taylor, a civil rights lawyer: "The pollsters are talking to people who know no more than that Thomas is black and an American success story." But it's precisely Thomas' up-from-poverty background that makes him attractive to many blacks. Royce W. Esters, president of the NAACP chapter in Compton, Calif., backs Thomas because he personifies the self-help philosophy. "We need to move away from the belief that America owes me something or else I'm going to steal," Esters says. The chapter voted to support Thomas, but under pressure from the parent group, members have agreed to voice support as individuals.

To some extent, the civil rights movement is a victim of its own success. The legislative victories of the 1960s, which outlawed discrimination in education, voting, and employment, have helped thousands of black households to move into the middle class. This group is far from monolithic and often challenges civil rights orthodoxy. "Blacks will not be pigeonholed anymore," says W. Allan Bean, a 30-year-old black entrepreneur from Washington who backs Thomas.

SPLITS. The civil rights bill will be another big test for the movement. The cohesion of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights will be challenged this fall when the Senate takes up the measure. Women's groups want the right to seek unlimited damages and jury trials for job bias. Blacks, who already have these rights, want the bill to focus on provisions that would make it easier to prove discrimination. These differences, plus White House interference, scuttled a compromise on the bill last spring.

Ralph G. Neas, director of the 185-member coalition, admits some tensions but disputes that civil rights groups are in trouble. "When you have an economy going downhill and two branches of government that are openly hostile to civil rights, I think the coalition is doing well," he says. Neas notes such triumphs as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the minimum-wage increase, and passage of a child-care bill.

But the Leadership Conference has dubious claims to these "victories." Bush supported the disabilities bill. The minimum-wage-hike bill was watered down to meet White House demands. And the movement itself was split on the child care bill because it provided federal funds to religious organizations.

Any loss of the movement's political muscle could be a boon for industry. It may be easier now for business to thwart the civil rights bill as well as efforts to raise corporate taxes. There could be a downside, though. If Thomas makes a conservative majority on civil rights issues, the court may undermine affirmative action and leave employers' hiring practices in disarray.

That's why the battle over Thomas is more than a fight over a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. It is a fight for the very soul of the civil rights movement.