With its past accomplishments under attack and its future course of action uncertain, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gathered here this past weekend to reexamine its role in an age of economic desperation for many blacks.
At age 69, the NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization in this country. During the past quarter century, it has scored dramatic victories over the legal barriers that were once the principal impediment to full black participation in American life.
But the biggest issue before the NAACP leadership summit conference now is not civil rights, but jobs.
From NAACP Executive Directive Benjamin L. Hooks to Illinois Gov. James Thompson, a potential Republican candidate for national office in 1980, those who addressed the group talked most about economic development and jobs for a generation of blacks growing up unable to find work.
"The victories of the '60s, the legal pronouncements and precedents have not realized equal opportunity for the masses of our people," Hooks said in his opening address. ". . . We have been chronically, perpetually out of work, and out of luck when jobs were available."
Even when the talk turned to civil rights, it was talk of a rear-guard action more than of breaking new ground. For NAACP leaders see many of the most significant milestones of the groups' past threatened today by erosion.
The case of medical school applicant Allan Bakke, now pending before the Supreme Court and several "reverse discrimination" employment cases wending their way through the courts threaten affirmative action, association officials said. They also cited a judge in Los Angeles who has ruled a law setting aside for minorities 10 percent of funds spent in a public works program unconstitutional. Other recent court decisions, the NAACP officials noted have tended to undermine the principle that policies can be judged by their effects on blacks rather than by the intentions of those who formulate them.
The shape of the civil rights dilemma was highlighted by the appearance here of Eleanor Holmes Norton, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In a dinner speech Friday, Norton said, although the Bakke case is important "Neither the set-aside places [for minorities] of the Bakke case nor the occasional quotas courts order are central to affirmative action."
NAACP officals disagreed vehemently, and several hours later issued a statement arguing that with the Bakke case, "a major public policy issue involving the principle of affirmative action is at stake."
The meeting here, which one official called the NAACP's first "think tank," was an effort to develop new positions for the association.
Only about 650 people - roughly half the expected number - turned out for the event. Conspicuously absent were Jesse Jackson, head of the Chicago-based Operation PUSH (although he made a brief appearance in the press room), and Vernon Jordan, executive director of the National Urban League, who is in China.
Hooks shrugged off the inevitable questions about their absences. "I didn't expect everybody to drop everything they were doing to come to our meeting," he said.
Top NAACP official said they see the organization today at a watershed, where it must find mechanisms to address the economic as well as the legal problems that face blacks.
The association has found its maiden efforts to widen its focus to include the economy difficult going.
In January, it announced an energy position that seemed to call for deregulation of oil and natural gas prices to stimulate the economy to generate more jobs. The announcement was greeted with dismay by many of the NAACP's traditional allies, including organized labor.
Two months ago, the NAACP testified in Congress in favor of a delay in the implementation of environmental standards that Chrysler Corp. had warned would force the closing of a Detroit plant that employs 300 people.
The testimony drew the immediate fire of environmental groups. "We're trying to adopt more flexible standards," said Hooks. "That puts us in the position of having some folks say we're for big business. A ridiculous statement. Who provides the jobs? We live in a capitalist society."
Association officials are quick to concede they do not know how to make the organizational changes needed to address the jobs issue.
The reason they say is the enormousness of the problem. The jobs issue includes inflation, the balance of payments, oil prices, tax policy, and other issues immune to attack through demonstrations or the courts.
"Education, pressure, lobbying, voting, testifying, using the media, and direct action - the tactics we have used have been successful up to this point, and every other organization has emulated them," Hooks said. "I just don't know any other tactics."