Frustrated by what it perceives is a slowdown in employment opportunities for minorities because of economic stagnation and the "laissez-faire" policies of the Carter administration, the NAACP - the nations's largest civil rights organization - is moving to recapture the political spotlight that it held during the desegregation battles of almost two decades ago.
Rather than the anti-segregation demonstrations and voter registration drives which created and forced compliance to new laws, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is speaking out in the more ambiquous world of energy, environment, and employment issues.
Rather than fighting for the right of entry - whether it be to a courthouse, a lunchroom or a barber shop - organization officials now speak in terms of the need for "forward thrust" and "upward mobility."
"We're no longer arguing about riding on the back of the bus," explains executive director Benjamin Hooks, "but being the bus driver or the president of the bus company."
"We're not pushing for the right to buy the hot dog, but selling the hot dog and the right to own the hot dog franchise."
The changing stance of the NAACP reflects the style of the 53-year-old Hooks, a lawyer, banker and Baptist minister, who assumed leadership of the 450,000-member organization last August.
Hooks succeeded Roy Wilkins, who directed the organization for 22 years with a reputation as an quiet but effective persuader. Hooks, on the other hand, is characterized by his staff as a more public person, "a motivator," "a people mover".
A dapper dresser who prefers wellcut, three-piece suits, Hooks rarely appears in public without the large gold seal which proclaims him a lifetime NAACP member, haging heavily from his neck.
An ebullient orator, Hooks mixes rhetoric from both the street and the board room.In a speech to the AFLCIO, he likened getting along with their mutual organization, to making love to a gorilla.
"It can be done," Hooks said. "But it absolutely has to be done on the gorilla's terms."
"Hooks was the first black judge of the Shelby County Criminal Court in Memphis, Tenn. While on the bench, he was nominated by President Nixon to become the first black member of the Federal Communications Commission. Hooks had been producer of his own weekly television series, "conversations in Black and White."
The NAACP assumed its more public role in January when its national board of directors issued a policy statement on energy which criticized the Carter administration's program for an "overemphasis on conservation."
The statement, which was greeted with great crowing by the petroleum industry and consternation by the administration and enviroment organizations, called for the development of nuclear power - including the controversial breeder reactor - and was widely interpreted as an endorsement of the deregulation of natural gas.
Hooks now says that "we have not called for or favored deregulation." The NAACP issued a statement claiming that "there was a deliberate distortion of our views and priorities."
What needed no clarification was the NAACP break with the policies of the Carter administration. Hooks continues to meet privately with both the president and vice-president, praising their "glorious pronouncement" but criticizes their lack of leadership.
"The problem with Carter goes beyond black issues" Hooks says. "It is what his view of the presidency is all about."
"His view is sort of laissez-faire. Maybe that's charitable.Maybe it's his lack of experience or expertise."
The NAACP concentrates its attention on energy issues because of the fear that restrictions on development will further constrict an already uncertain economy.
"We have created more jobs in the past 10 years than anyone should have thought possible, and the unemployment rate is going up for black folks," Hooks says.
"If we are creating all those jobs and adult unemployment is 12 percent while teenage unemployment is 50 percent, what in the name of God would happen if we were not creating new jobs? The NAACP position is simply designed to say, we are for a growth economy."
The organization says that an economic slowdown could create a backlash of white racism. "The oil boycott frightened white males to death," Hooks explain. "For the first time they started saying, maybe I won't have a job, maybe I could lose my home. When people get personally frightened, their liberal concerns begin to shrink."
The NAACP's push for jobs has put itself at odds not just with the Democratic administration but also the environmental movement. Even before Hooks assumed office, the organization supported U.S. Steel's argument that compliance with EPA and court-ordered pollution controls on blast furnaces at its giant Gary, Ind., plant would cause widespread layoffs. (The United Steelworkers of America, which represents employees at Gary, remain neutral - while it attacked the pollution versus job issue as "invironmental blackmail.")
"We know the generations of white folks have eaten that smoke and gone on to retire in greener pastures in California," Hooks says. "They've gone on to send their children and grandchildren to college. The minute black people come up to bat, you move the foul line, you change the rule."
"Our position is very simple. We do not desire to pollute the air, our streams, our rivers, or smother ourselves to death, but we think that everything in life can be reasoned."
New equipment has since been installed at the Gary plant, with apparently no loss in jobs.
More recently the NAACP, along with the United Autoworkers, actively supported Chrysler Motor's successful effort to reduce the Department of Transportation's imposed fuel economy standards for light trucks.
According to Chrysler the originally proposed standards - which would have taken effect in 1980 - would have forced the company to close the Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit. The factory currently employes 2,600 workers - 55 percent black - and is the largest single plant in the city.
Chrysler from soon-to-be discontinued, full-size automobiles to pickup trucks and van production at the end of the model year. The company predicts that double-shift production could boost employment to 5,000 workers.
"They (the NAACP) really went to bat for us," a Chrysler spokesman said.
"We know," comments Hooks, "that many of the factories in the inner cities are inefficient. We know that the companies don't need much of an excuse to get out."
"We said to Chrysler, as we said to General Motors, that we don't want to see you forever trying to use us to evade cleaning up your plant, getting your act straight. All we asked was for an extention of time so Chrysler could open that plant."
Hooks appears mindful that his organization walks a thin line on environmental issues, which appeal to many of the NAACP's liberal white supporters.
"We understand that many enviromentalists are not fighting workers or black people," says Hooks. "We know that they honestly believe in their hearts that the companies are lying. I'm not sure if they're right or not. That isn't my concern at this point."