At 9:30 last Friday morning, moments before the start of a court hearing that centered on his installation as president of the Dallas branch of the NAACP, the tall, nattily dressed Lee Alcorn conceded he was perplexed.
"I just don't understand it," Alcorn said of a battle that has erupted between the top leaders of the national NAACP office in Baltimore and the big names, including County Commissioner John Wiley Price, of the Dallas branch. "You think of the overall damage that has been done not only to the Dallas office but the national as well, when this all could have been easily resolved with our constitution."
He is not alone. The battle between Price and national NAACP President Kweisi Mfume pits so many erstwhile allies against each other it defies comprehension.
This most recent chapter in the fight between Mfume and Price began in early January when Mfume suspended Price and lawyer Ron Davis from the civil rights organization. The national NAACP alleged that the two had disregarded an order from the national office barring them from installing Alcorn and others elected as officers of the Dallas branch until the results from a December election were certified.
In response, Price and Davis rushed in early January to state District Judge John Marshall, who granted them a temporary restraining order forbidding the national leaders from suspending the two Dallas members.
But on Friday, when Price and Davis asked Judge Bill Rhea to keep the temporary order in place for a longer period, Rhea ruled against them. He agreed with Eric Moye, the Dallas lawyer and former state judge representing the national NAACP, who argued that the court should not interfere until the private organization had the time to resolve the matter with its own adjudication process. A hearing over the suspensions is now scheduled for February 10 before a panel of national NAACP board members.
Before the judge ruled on Friday, however, the sparks flew fast and furious in his packed courtroom. Local television stations had two cameras on tripods to record the event.
Within the first 10 minutes of direct questioning by Price's lawyers of Alcorn, Moye had objected at least six times. Throughout the proceeding, Moye looked exasperated with the other side and refused to perform the courtesy of giving his opposing counsel copies of cases he cited as precedent. "They can do their own research," he said. Another time, he commented on the disorganization that prevailed at the Price and Davis table. (The group did seem to have a surprising number of problems sorting through an indexed set of exhibits that Moye had given them at the beginning of the preceding.)
Meanwhile, Davis, Price's ally, who represented himself, got his own licks in. He referred to the NAACP national president as "Crazy Mfume." The judge scolded Davis immediately for the childish approach. "Mr. Davis, will you dispense with the play on words and call people by their proper names?" the stern-faced Rhea demanded of the lawyer, who could barely conceal a grin.
Under questioning by Price's lawyer and Davis, Alcorn, whose low, gravelly voice seemed like an oasis of calm compared with the others', recounted for the court the events at a local branch meeting on January 5 when some 100 people attended an installation ceremony for newly elected officers. Alcorn described the affair as "no more than a ceremonial function."
A month earlier, Alcorn had defeated advertising company owner Dwaine Caraway in the election for branch president. Supporters of Caraway, however, had subsequently filed a complaint that the election was marred by improprieties. As a result of that complaint, national field officer Mark Clack had sent a memo to the Dallas branch and Alcorn barring them from formally installing the new officers until a state NAACP committee fully reviewed the complaint.
In his testimony, Alcorn insisted that the installation ceremony had not been an attempt to violate Clack's memo. "The officers were simply preparing for when and if the Texas state committee ruled on the frivolous claim," Alcorn told the court. "No one believes that these people who took the ceremonial oath would begin to act as officers."
Even though 100 people attended the meeting that evening, Alcorn told the court, the national organization had selected for suspension only two, Price and Davis, as a result of their alleged participation in the installation ceremony.
When Price, who had made sure at the beginning of the hearing that representatives from the media could get good seats in the jury box, took the stand, he told the court, "I'd like to think that I am involved in all critical areas of the NAACP." He and his lawyer argued to the court that any curbing of his role in the branch would irreparably harm the organization and therefore the judge should issue the restraining order to prevent such damage.
To buttress that point, Price listed his role in raising money, some $65,000 last year, he said, as well as his political activities in the new arena, the Olympic bid, the Dallas Independent School District, and the upcoming city council elections.
When the national field officer Clack took the stand, Davis pummeled him with questions about the timing and notification of the suspensions. Clack notified Price of his suspension on January 6--the day after the installation hearing--but he didn't send all the documentation supporting his action until eight days later. "I didn't have the opportunity," says Clack, who, perhaps not surprisingly, seemed a little bewildered by the politics in Dallas. "I was at an election in Las Vegas."
In Nevada, a faction of branch members had written the national office to request a new election. The members there have been so contentious that Clack told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he is even contemplating closing the branch, a threat that the national office has not yet overtly made in Dallas.
Why was he so concerned about the installation ceremony? Clack told the court: "We did not want to have two sets of officers holding themselves out to the community." He noted that even though some of the newly elected officers were already serving, others, particularly in the key position of treasurer, were not the same.
"We've done this in about a dozen elections across the country. We want to make it clear what the standard operating procedures should be," Clack told the court, repeating that two sets of officers was unacceptable. "It is exacerbating to an already factious situation."
It was his lawyer Moye's arguments that seemed to persuade the judge. He contended that Price and Davis had resorted to litigation prematurely. "It is intensely inconsistent for them to come to this court to argue that we're deprived of due process when they are asking the court to arrest that process, " Moye said.
Even though the judge had ruled against his allies Price and Davis, Alcorn deemed the hearing a success. "The whole point for the commissioner and Davis," Alcorn said after the hearing, "was to have the national leaders come to Dallas and explain themselves. I think the point was made."
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What, exactly, that point was is anybody's guess.
For starters, Alcorn is not sure whether he is the Dallas branch president. He has not been notified that he was suspended for the installation ceremony--which, remember, Alcorn testified wasn't really an installation ceremony, just sort of like one. He, of course, participated as much as the others and therefore would seem as likely a candidate for the discipline as anyone else.
And just before the hearing there was a conference in Judge Rhea's chambers that Alcorn says still has him thoroughly confused. Clack called him into the judge's quarters and asked if he would approve, as Dallas branch president, the hiring of Moye as its lawyer. "I told them OK," said Alcorn, "because they had already gone and done that anyway."
So Alcorn, who may or may not be acting branch president--he's not sure--had to approve hiring a lawyer for the branch after the lawyer had already been hired by the people who may eventually tell him he's not president. That lawyer's job was to defend the suspension of two of Alcorn's allies, who were booted for taking part, along with Alcorn and others, in a ceremony that wasn't a ceremony.
There is a slim chance that all the confusion will be sorted out by mid-February. If not, maybe Alcorn, Price, Davis, et al. will end up taking the advice of Groucho Marx--don't belong to any club that's willing to have them as members.