It is more than an ''ongoing personal feud'' between two officials, as some members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People say. The move by NAACP board chairwoman Margaret Bush Wilson to suspend executive director Benjamin L. Hooks on May 20 reflects uncertainties about the future of the nation's largest and oldest civil rights organization as it adapts to a new, more sophisticated role in the 1980s.
Currently the NAACP is changing its emphasis from traditional civil rights issues such as school and housing desegregation and register-and-vote campaigns to the deeper issue of economic parity for blacks.
The outcome of the leadership struggle could be a reorganization of the NAACP , perhaps along the lines of a corporation. It may also mean reshuffling top officials, with either Mr. Hooks or Mrs. Wilson the winner, or with both of them out.
When asked about the controversy, most top officials are on a ''vocal fast,'' as one spokesman put it. Mrs. Wilson officially announced the Hooks suspension (with pay) to the national staff at its Brooklyn headquarters after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had reported he was fired.
The move has left the organization ''in shock'' as it prepares for its 74th national convention scheduled for July 10-15 in New Orleans, according to Kelly Alexander Sr., vice-chairman of the NAACP board and president of the organization's North Carolina chapter.
Although ''nearly everybody has been caught by surprise,'' he says, the NAACP as an organization is greater than ''any feud between two officers.'' He adds that branch members want to resolve the issue at the board level quickly while carrying on business as usual.
General counsel Thomas I. Atkins has been named acting executive director until the issue is settled. Neither Mrs. Bush, Mr. Hooks, nor Mr. Atkins has been available to the news media this week.
No official date has been set for board action on the suspension, say spokesmen at the Brooklyn office. But the Hooks-Bush question could be taken up at a board meeting scheduled for May 28. Mrs. Bush reportedly has set a June 11 date for a meeting specifically on the suspension.
Crisis at the top level comes at a time when the mission of the NAACP is in flux. Under Hooks, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the NAACP has tackled the film industry, including both movies and television, seeking not only black employment at all levels, but also black ownership of TV and radio stations.
Hooks also initiated the NAACP's Fair Share program, which seeks to persuade private industry to purchase goods and services from black businesses. Under his guidance, the organization has emphasized affirmative action in the employment of minorities, especially in local and state governments and by firms that have government contracts.
''Members of our 1,100 branches admire Hooks as a man who has developed and restructured the NAACP program and oriented (it) to the melding of civil rights, politics, and economic progress into a single mission,'' said a Southern official who would not be quoted by name.
Mrs. Wilson offers another view. A lawyer recognized for her work in stabilizing shaky community organizations in St. Louis and a member of several corporate boards, she favors a more businesslike NAACP.
Throughout its history the NAACP has been led by strong executive directors such as W.E.B. DuBois, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, and most recently, Hooks. At the same time, the association has been headed officially by a board chairman and a president, both of whom often exercised little authority.
Mrs. Wilson is reported to have suspended Hooks after a heated exchange of words - she often criticizes his administration as inefficient - at an executive committee meeting in Chicago May 14. Earlier she clashed with Roy Wilkins before he retired in 1976.
Observers within and without the NAACP suggest that a redefinition of the three top offices - board chairman, president, and executive director - could modernize management and resolve the clash peacefully.