There were so many black men checking into the elegant old Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill that one of the red-liveried bellhops wanted to know if there was some special musical event going on that he had not heard about.
The men and a few black women retold the story as a joke, laughed about it and shrugged it off with an air of prosperous self-assurance.
There were no musicians among their ranks, but there were Ivy League professors, lawyers, physicians, dentists and commentators -- men in their 30s, 40s and early 50s, dressed in dark blue pin-suits as befits the members of an emerging black professional class.
Some had for years been that anomaly of American politics, a black Republican. Many others were lifelong Democrats, disillusioned at the perceived failure of President Carter to pursue policies and actions that aided blacks. They were not only turning away from the Democrats but from the traditional black civil rights organizations as well, in the belief that liberal philsophies of government intervention in behalf of blacks and creation of social programs for the poor had not worked.
Among the 125 who gathered here for a conference on "black alternatives" organized by the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a conservative San Francisco-based think tank, there were differ ng degrees of expectation about the incoming Reagan administration, and from their sessions came no concrete alternative plan nor even an across-the-board agreement about where the problems lie.
They are the voices that were drowned out in the rhetoric of revolution and protest in the 1960s and early 1970s. In their numbers alone they could not call themselves a full-blown movement; few hold elective office or are in positions where they can claim any large constituency, although there were former school board members and state senators in the group.
But they point to evidence in national polls in claiming that their views are in many ways more in concert with masses of blacks than are the views of the civil rights organizations. And they are bound to have an impact on national policy because of their close agreement with the views of the administration of Ronald Reagan and strong bonds with the president-elect's lieutenants that appeared to develop over this weekend.
The two-day conference was sponsored by a conservative foundation Reagan got started in the early 1970s after he left the statehouse in Sacramento. Its president, Monroe Brown, is a member of the president-elect's "kitchen cabinet." One of the board members and a principal speaker to the conference this weekend was Edwin Meese Iii, Reagan's righthand man, already tapped as counselor to the president in the new administration.
Meese took nine hours out of a busy schedule to come here and listen to a series of workshops on black issues viewed from the right. He expressed strong enthusiasm for the approaches outlined by the professors and commentators, and a contrasting weariness with the arguments of the old-line black civil rights leaders.
The professors, especially the highly respected black conservative economist Thomas Sowell and his close associate, Walter Williams, a professor at Philadelphia's Temple University, were the leaders of the conference, seizing the opportunity to spread their gospel of opposition to the minimum wage, affirmative action and school busing -- the very issues that a group of civil rights leaders had argued in favor of at a meeting with the president-elect in Washington last Thursday.
Sowell and Williams argued that these policies had demonstrably not only failed to help most blacks but, in a cruel boomerang, often hurt them.
Meese sat with Brown in the back row, smiling, sometimes nodding in agreement at the presentations, occasionally pulling a sheet of paper cut of his pocket to scribble rapid notes. Meese told the conference he found their views refreshing, "nonpredictable positions, nonpredictable attitudes."
"We have the idea that this is the politics of change and I suggest that it is more than just the politics of change," he said. "It's change in thinking, it's change of self-perception, it's change in leadership and it's change in varieties of political orientation."
Percy Sutton, the former borough president of Manhattan and still a Democratic stalwart, was invited here to play the role of dissenter, a role he played with seeming reluctance. He teased in his speech that it was curiosity that made him accept.
"I wanted to come out here -- now don't be offended when I say this, I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings -- because I wanted to see what a black conservative looked like," he said.
But for the most part, the aumosphere was as if some long-ago separated tribe had come together again around the red velvet couches and towering marble columns of the plush Italian villa hotel, where the cut-rate single rooms start at $100 a night.
A Nobel Prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman, who has been in conflict for years with fellow Jews because of his conservative views, told the conference, "I'm very glad to be here with all of the rest of the outcasts."
Clarence Thomas, a young aide to Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), spoke with barely controlled exhilaration. "It's really kind of good to be here because someone might agree with me for a change," he said -- and one consensus he found was with his rejection of the idea that every failing or missed achievement of a black can be blamed on racism.
Speakers at the conference said that racism does still exist, predicted bleakly that it would probably continue into the long years ahead, but argued that it has declined as a significant barrier to black achievement.
Several conference participants rejected the pursuit of integration as a primary goal. They talked instead about policies that aim for an accumulation of wealth and advancement, either inside or outside an integrated world.
And they emphasized the old-fashioned virtues of self-reliance, hard work and extra effort -- virtues exemplified by the lightning rod of the conference, Sowell, a Harlem high school dropout who went on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard and than take his doctorate at the University of Chicago, where he became one of Friedman's proteges and a convert to the principles of free market economics.
Sowell swung a broad ax, assaulting conventional liberal wisdom and seeming to relish picking on civil rights groups for what he almost derisively described as their misguided crusades. He counsels that there was an inevitability to the country's political swing to the right.
"Camelot seems unlikely to return and we cannot bet the future of 20 million [blacks] on its return," he said. "We have to recognize that many methods were failing before they even lost public support."
Sowell claims that whatever fears about Reagan that may exist among blacks, who cast 80 to 90 percent of their ballots for Jimmy Carter, have been stirred up by civil rights leaders.
Untroubled by the failure of the group to come up with any clearly stated points of agreement or solutions, Sowell announced that the Hoover Institution, the conservative think tank at Stanford University of which he is a senior fellow, had decided to sponsor another conference like this one in March.
The conference ended punctually Saturday night after two days of workshops, discussions and many scenes that might not have been imaginable a decade ago:
Tall and lanky Oscar Wright, a community organizer in the slums of south-central Los Angeles who has led residents in opposition to busing, sitting with Milton Friedman, lunching on baby shrimp served on good china on starched tablecloths. Wright tells Friedman at the end of lunch that he believes the professor may have converted him to support for a voucher system for education.
Unexpected conversions, with both Tony Brown, a commentator and producer of the "Tony Brown's Journal" television show, and Chuck Stone, Philadelphia Daily News columnist and former aide to the late Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, stepping to the podium to declare an affinity with some of the conservatives' ideals.
There was one embarrased moment in the conference. It came when Robert Woodson of the American Enterprise Institute asked if the conferees were not guilty of the same kind of arrogance that they accused liberals of, by proposing solutions when there were no poor people here to give their views.
Silence hung over the room.