Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R) of Maryland was asked to play second fiddle to cross-country marchers Monday as Benjamin L. Hooks interrupted his address to a scheduled session of the NAACP convention meeting here. ``I'm sorry to cut in, but our marchers against South African apartheid are in front of convention hall,'' Mr. Hooks said. ``Let's greet them and hear them.''
Hooks, chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was doing something never done before when he interrupted the senator at this session of the 77th national convention of the association.
Delegates cheered as demonstrators marched in, chanting: ``South Africa, free [Nelson] Mandela now!''
They presented Senator Mathias with a large stack of petitions signed by people from across the United States protesting the South African government's policy of apartheid (racial separation).
The marchers had just concluded the last leg of a 3,000-mile walk that began on the West coast.
This sort of demonstration was something new for the NAACP.
Mathias responded: ``We must intensify our work for the dismantlement of apartheid and for peaceful change that can bring dignity and justice and freedom to all South Africans.''
The NAACP is displaying a more-activist approach to achieving civil rights. ``The NAACP is not outdated,'' Hooks had told the opening session Sunday. ``When the NAACP meets, civil rights, economic rights, and political rights of black Americans move forward.''
Both Hooks and the NAACP as well as other traditional civil rights leaders and organizations have been on the spot. They are accused of being out of touch with reality, living in the past.
As nearly 5,000 people jam the hotels of Maryland's largest city, it is obvious that association officials are out to prove that the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization is as alert to the key problems blacks face today as it was 30 years ago when it successfully fought Southern laws that fostered racial segregation.
Hooks openly challenged ideas of a rising group of black middle-class yuppies, (``buppies'' to blacks), who say that traditional civil rights leaders are pass'e and are not geared to solving the issues of the 1980s.
The NAACP is seeking to market its new $3.1 million national headquarters, opened two months ago in Baltimore. Members will tour the 55,000 square foot office facility on a 3.5-acre plot Thursday, the final day of the convention.
The association also is marketing Hooks. The board has issued a vote of confidence in him by approving him for its highest honor Thursday night at the closing banquet.
Critics are questioning the wisdom of moving the NAACP's headquarters from a city like New York, which is the world's media and financial center, to a city located on the outskirts of the mainstream and in the midst of recovery from urban blight.
Conservative blacks say a welfare society has made blacks dependent on government for their well-being. They want blacks to seek high quality education, to discipline themselves against the inroads of crime and drugs and ``easy money'' in place of hard work.
They criticize the influence of emotional leaders such as Hooks, who is not only a lawyer and business entrepreneur but is also a minister. He is on leave as pastor of Baptist churches in Detroit and Memphis.
In personal interviews and sessions with the news media Hooks counters these criticisms by talking of the association's current mission, which is ``to implement goals already won, to hold our own in retaining our current rights, and to bring black people into economic parity with whites.''
Two dramatic events highlighted the opening two days of the convention.
Hooks concluded an emotional one-hour opening address, short for him, with an appeal for funds to complete the new headquarters. ``Close the doors! Let no one out!'' he told the ushers at the opening session.
Delegates then responded by marching to the platform with large gifts from black organizations and from NAACP state and regional groups.
The second big event was the dramatic ending of the two-month cross-country march and demonstration not only against apartheid in South Africa, but also for exercise by American minorities of their voting rights, ``rights denied our South African brothers of color.''
Other convention activities include an award to Nelson Mandela, jailed leader of the African National Congress.