Retreating from a sternly worded ultimatum, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People on Friday lifted its threat to remove leaders of the tiny Compton branch if they did not withdraw their support for President Bush's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.
A half an hour before the noon deadline, an official of the Baltimore-based civil rights organization called branch President Royce Esters in Compton and told him the threat was off.
"He asked me if I would agree to a statement he was going to read," said a jubilant Esters, surrounded by cheering branch members and supporters. "He read it and I said, 'Fine.' "
The written statement, bearing the names of Esters and NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks, said the two agreed that a July 20 vote by the Compton branch to support Thomas' nomination "will stand as an expression of the sentiment of the Compton branch, but not as an official NAACP position."
The organization's national board of directors voted 49 to 1 on July 31 to oppose the nomination of Clarence Thomas to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall. The 150-member Compton branch is the only NAACP branch to publicly support Thomas, 43, a black conservative appellate court judge.
On Thursday, William Penn, director of branch and field services for the national NAACP, made the ultimatum, saying local branches must adhere to positions taken by the national leadership. Penn said the Compton branch could either retract its support of Thomas or resign en masse. If the branch did not back down, he said, the national office would seek its "expulsion, suspension or removal."
That stance drew a storm of criticism of the national leadership and flood of support for the Compton branch--including offers to join the group.
Marlin Fitzwater, spokesman for the White House, on Friday accused the nation's oldest civil rights group of abandoning its principles of freedom by trying to force its local groups into adopting the views of national leaders.
Also on Friday, the Rutherford Institute, a Northern California public interest law corporation with a conservative agenda, offered its services free to the Compton branch if it wanted to pursue the matter in court.
Earlier, Roy Innis, national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, which supports the Thomas nomination, had denounced the NAACP leaders, saying they sought to present "an image of monolith (of opinion) in black America" on the Thomas nomination.
James Williams, a spokesman for the NAACP, denied that the national officials had been shamed into reversing themselves, but acknowledged: "We were concerned by the way this was being interpreted as a move to silence people, which we never intended to do.
"We were not trying to impose some doctrine on people or force them to walk in lock-step," he said.
John Mance, a member of the NAACP national board of directors, met privately with Esters at Esters' tax consulting business in Compton for about 15 minutes Friday after the reversal was made public. The two emerged from the meeting smiling and shaking hands.
Mance, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, told reporters that the controversy was the result of a "misunderstanding and miscommunication."
He accused some news media of inaccurately reporting that the Compton branch had reaffirmed its support of the Thomas nomination after the national board voted to oppose it--an action violating the organization's policy. He declined to specify the media outlets.
The national board concluded Friday that the Compton branch had done nothing wrong because it took its position before the national leaders took their own, Mance said.
He emphasized, however, that all branches, including Compton, are barred from campaigning on behalf of Thomas' nomination or endorsing it in the name of the organization.
Esters and the board members of the Compton branch--some of whom had threatened to sue the NAACP and sow dissension among the group's 1,500 branches--clearly saw themselves as unqualified victors in the dispute.
"When they gave us the high-noon deadline, I'm so glad we did not panic and resign," said a smiling Esters, who also was celebrating his 54th birthday. "We proved to them that we are independent as a branch. At the same time we are glad to keep our charter."
The Rev. Walter Goodin, first vice president of the branch, said the national leaders took the position that "the kids aren't doing what papa wants them to."
"Well, we showed them we are not invertebrates," he said. "We have backbone."
The branch's 32-0 vote supporting Thomas reflected a variety of attitudes among the members who were present, most of whom said they do not consider themselves either conservative or liberal.