The national Association for the advancement of colored people and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., longtime potent civil rights partners, are at each other's throats.
The two groups are fighting over recognition and money.
The NAACP wants the Legal Defense Fund to drop NAACP from its title. It also wants the LDF to stop claiming credit for winning the famous 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
The LDF wants to keep the honor, the NAACP name and the contributions they generate.
It is an ugly fmaily dispute that threatens to upset the upcoming 25th anniversary observance of the 1954 victory.
As in many family feuds, the NAACP disputants have tried to keep their fight private. They say they are embarrassed by the conflict.
However, embarrassed or not, several ranking NAACP officials found it hard to keep silent when, earlier this month, the LDF mailed announcements calling for "a week of activities commemorating the 25th anniversary of one of the great moments in American history: the U.S. Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954."
The announcement characterized the great moment as "a victory won by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc."
In New York City at their headquarters and in Washington at their legislative office, NAACP official asserted. "We're not about to stand idly by and let somebody else claim our victory...The LOF is a separate entity, a civil rights law firm with no membership base, no constituency. It has nothing to do with the NAACP," the official said.
It wasn't always that way.
The Legal Defense Fund came into being in 1939, back in the days when the NAACP was laying much of the groundwork for its major civil rights court battles. The fund, or NAACP legal department as it was called then, was under the direct control of the NAACP board.
Then came the 1954 Supreme Court decision, originally hailed as an NAACP victory. NAACP board members and lawyers believed there was nothing they couldn't do-together.
But Southern members of Congress, alarmed by the NAACP achievement, began raising questions about whether the civil rights group's legal activities fell outside the tax-exempt category. In 1957, the Internal Revenue Service ordered a divorce between the NAACP and its legal defense group.
For a while, things went along well.
The defense and educational fund was led by longtime NAACP member Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Marshall left the defense fund in 1961 after being nominated by then President John F. Kennedy for a federal judgeship. He was replaced at the fund by Jack Greenberg, a white liberal.
Slowly, dissension began developing between the LDF and the NAACP. In 1966, for example, Greenberg was asked by NAACP leaders to stay away from the organization's national convention in Los Angeles because his presence "would have an adverse affect."
There was also, as NAACP officials confirmed this week, considerable concern that the LDF was receiving contributions meant for the NAACP because the defense fund carried the NAACP name.
That concern bordered on panic when the NAACP officials saw the LDF's 25th Brown v. Board of Education announcements.
"This whole thing revolves around competition for funds," said a New York official of the NAACP, which has accumulated a deficit of nearly $680,000 in recent years.
"More and more, the NAACP board is getting upset over the way that the LDF uses the NAACP name in fund-raising," the official said.
The New York official said that the NAACP "for years has been trying to get LDF to relinquish our name." However, the official denied widespread rumors that the NAACP was planning a lawsuit against the LDF. "That would be too messy," the official said.
For his part, a solemn-voiced Greenberg told a reporter: "I hope you won't mind if my only response is that I have nothing to say. Really, I just have nothing to say on the subject."
The LDF is still planning to hold symposiums in New York City and Washington in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the desegregation ruling. Also still scheduled is an LDF dinner, May 17, at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington.
However, a planned White Houe reception in honor of the principals in the Supreme Court case has been put in doubt by the controversy.
NAACP officials have threatened to boycott the White House event which, according to sources, would be sponsored in part by the LDF.
The NAACP, according to officials in the organization's Washington office, is planning its own celebration in Columbia, S.C., the site of one of the companion suits in the 1954 case. The NAACP is also planning to hold candlelight marches May 17 in cities across the nation.
"We've always had a yearly celebration...We've always had a yearly celebration...We've worked long and hard to overturn the separate-but-equal doctrine; and we don't believe that anyone should try to come back and horn in on the association's hard won victory," one of the Washington NAACP officials said.