Black leaders walk new roads to change. Race and the Law

As America's civil rights leaders look toward the 21st century, they find themselves fighting many of the same old battles. Most leaders are also urging their troops to battle new threats such as the nomination of Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court.

Despite the progress of recent decades, black Americans still face racism, these leaders say. So rights groups are recycling their policies and resetting their sights.

Register-to-vote drives, for instance, no longer target segregation laws, poll taxes, and literacy tests. Now they focus on ``one man, one vote''; they protest gerrymandered districts and at-large elections. Instead of sit-ins, freedom rides, and demonstrations against ``separate but equal,'' blacks seek affirmative-action and fair-housing laws and equal-employment opportunity commissions.

And a new cause, President Reagan's nomination of Judge Bork, has most civil rights groups up in arms. They are concerned Mr. Bork's elevation could result in the erosion of civil rights they have marched, sued, and sat-in to achieve.

They supported the Congressional Black Caucus (23 black members in the US House, all Democrats) which concluded its annual legislative weekend in Washington Sunday, by actively campaigning against Senate approval of Bork.

Civil rights groups are also keeping a scorecard on what the senators say and how they vote. They are closely watching younger Democrats recently elected with black support. Among them are Sen. Wyche Fowler of Georgia who was elected in 1986 after serving in the House from the district now represented by civil rights activist John Lewis, and conservatives such as Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, who may agree with Bork philosophically but recognize the value of the black vote that carried them into office.

Symbolic of changing rights organizations is the National Urban League. In the past it was a staid, somewhat elitist social-work agency serving ``qualified and prepared'' blacks. It operated out of downtown offices and received funds from the United Way, friendly corporations, and the federal government.

The league, led by John E. Jacob (more administrator than spokesman), is taking its current efforts into problem communities. When the Bork selection was announced, Mr. Jacob spoke out against it. League affiliates have joined campaigns to defeat his appointment.

Typical of its new local-outreach leadership is Donald Polk, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. He is teaming up with the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the public school system, and community groups to push initiatives on full employment and black family revitalization.

Other affiliates are spreading the Urban League's gospel with programs plugging black business, black culture, and employment. The league, which ignored electoral politics at its annual convention in Houston in July, plans to sponsor a national political forum on minority interests with presidential hopefuls invited to appear.

The NAACP, the best known of the civil rights groups, is deemphasizing its legal stance while concentrating on programs to upgrade black-owned businesses. But it will definitely maintain its interest in political affairs, says executive director Benjamin L. Hooks. The defeat of Bork is a cause that the NAACP is supporting locally and nationally.

Political action to achieve economic equity is the basic goal of the nation's newest rights group, the Organization for a New Equality (ONE), headed by the Rev. Charles A. Stith of Boston.

ONE urges presidential hopefuls to participate in a summit on economic needs and business enterprises of America's minorities.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is urging the black church to revive its involvement in civil rights, says the Rev. Joseph C. Lowery, SCLC's president. It has also added AIDS to its list of issues. The SCLC recently observed its 30th anniversary by meeting in New Orleans at the church where it was founded in 1967.

Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) continues to seek equality for blacks off the field in professional sports.

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), no longer the power it was in the 1960s, has taken up two causes: helping undocumented aliens to legalize their status in the US, and working to get blacks active in both major political parties.

Full integration of blacks in colleges is the basic goal of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It is also moving its interests beyond the courtroom into community problem areas.

To implement ambitious programs, rights groups are trying to tighten their purse strings.

The Urban League, rarely a public money raiser, is pushing two fund events: a national raffle with plush prizes and a new ``Gala of Stars'' fund-raiser, scheduled for tonight in New York with Bill Cosby as honorary chairman.

More typical of black groups is the NAACP's approach. It looks to corporations, foundations, and special fund-raisers for major funding and still relies mainly on membership dues and voluntary donations.

Whites are trickling back to the civil rights movement. Many had left during the black power era of the 1960s.

Most symbolic of a modest acceptance of whites is the hiring of white Ralph G. Neas as executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, with national offices in Washington. The leadership conference is a coalition of 165 national organizations of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

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