Rarely in its history has the NAACP had a greater opportunity to exert a major influence than it has this week as the organization considers, at its Houston convention, whether to endorse the nomination of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court.
If the NAACP endorses Thomas, few senators are likely to vote against one who was nominated by a conservative president and approved by the nation's preeminent civil rights organization. But if the NAACP should add its voice to those opposing Thomas, Senate approval would be anything but certain.
It is understandable, for emotional as well as practical reasons, that the NAACP delegates would look with favor upon Thomas. He is, after all, a black man who would succeed a black man in an office of great power and prestige. On the practical side, it is a foregone conclusion that if the Thomas nomination is rejected, the alternative nominee would be someone who is just as conservative and yet does not share the experience of having grown up in segregated poverty -- an experience which, no doubt, will always function as a still, small voice as long as Thomas draws breath.
On the intellectual side, it will be difficult for the NAACP to lend its weight to the Thomas nomination. After all, if he were a white man with his record of decisions and statements, it is all but certain that the NAACP would reject him.
So it is a tough call. No doubt the delegates and leadership of the NAACP have been tempted to pull the kind of fence-straddle that Lee Atwater, the late Republican chairman, executed when it became clear that public opinion was flowing markedly against the party's hard-line position against abortion rights. Atwater, in effect embracing the pro-choice position, declared abortion to be a matter of conscience on which Republicans were free to take their own positions.
For the moment the NAACP has shelved action on the Thomas nomination; but ultimately it will not be able to avoid taking a position on this major public issue.