As Republicans gathered for this weekend's inaugural events, one of the hottest topics among blacks in their number was the potential feud brewing over a couple of old questions: "Who leads black America?" and "Who has the president's ear?"
Last week, just one day before the National Urban League released its respected annual "State of Black America" report, a group of 20 blacks, led by Robert L. Woodson, met with President Reagan and presented what they described as an agenda for black economic progress. In the wake of that meeting, league President John Jacob and NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks questioned not only the group's leadership credentials but also the validity of the meeting.
"I don't think his the president's meeting is tantamount to meeting with blacks who have a constituency and who have provided services over some period of time," said Jacob.
Later, President Reagan added fuel to the fire by saying that some (unidentified) black leaders have deceived their followers into ignoring his administration's accomplishments to protect "some rather good positions that they have." Reagan further suggested that the organizations they lead may have outlived their usefulness.
Here we go again, folks. Two groups of black leaders, with the same general end of improving the lot of black people, but differing on the means, noisily focusing on the personalities involved rather than the issues.
Jacob sees the social and economic status of blacks as "grim" and thinks the government still has a role, though a reduced one. He has called on the president to heal the breach between blacks and his administration. To the fledgling bipartisan and generally conservative Council for a Black Economic Agenda, the social programs of the last 20 years have failed the poor and a new approach is needed, one that focuses on economic development and encourages entrepreneurship and self-help.
Woodson and his group see the traditional leadership (Hooks and Jacob) as attempting to suppress ideas and strategies; meanwhile, Hooks and Jacob see the new group as usurpers, repudiating the work and struggle for blacks that they have been engaged in over the past two decades.
In a way, both groups are right. And both are wrong. The new group needs to look at what has been done before without repudiating it. Hooks and Jacob need to be receptive to new ideas. And the challenge in the meantime is to find a way for the groups to achieve a rapprochement, stop the attacks and finally get around to debating the issues.
So it has not been helpful for Jacob and Hooks to negate Woodson and his group as they have on radio and television the past few days. But the timing of the meeting between Woodson's group and the president was not particularly good strategy either.
Coming as it did on the eve of the league's annual survey of black America, which has criticized Reagan in the past and also drawn respect for its accuracy, it easily fed the suspicion that the meeting was timed to set up an arena of divisiveness among blacks. Such feelings only grew stronger when Reagan jumped into the fray as he did on Thursday with his controversial remarks.
This struggle for power, while much written about in recent days and important to the new groups, is not new to the black community. It harks back to the debates over the direction that black America should take between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois at the turn of the century, and between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the '60s.
They are part of the same historical pattern, in that whenever a new group challenges an old one and talks of substituting its leadership and ideas, a period of turmoil is inevitable.
For the black community is not a monolithic community, and it sorely needs ideas for a range of problems that are too complicated for one organization or group to attempt to monopolize arrogantly.
What is needed if the black community is going to be well served, of course, is a multipronged approach that incorporates not only the ideas of the leadership that has historically spoken for blacks and Woodson's fledging council, but also those of the many other groups that exist.
This kind of serious dialogue, however, will require each side to hold its collective ego in check while respecting the ideas of the other. In such an approach, the question no longer should be, "Who leads black America?" or even "Who has the ear of the president?" but "What is being proposed to solve the continuing problems of those blacks who are still mired in poverty?"
It remains to be seen whether that will occur. And what's at stake is the future not of groups or leaders, but of black people.