N.A.A.C.P. Counsel Resigns; Will Remain Involved in Cases

By Carol Ellison — May 16, 1984 4 min read

Cincinnati--Thomas Atkins, general counsel of the naacp and a principal figure in many of the nation’s largest school-desegregation cases, has resigned to enter private legal practice.

Mr. Atkins said he was leaving the post, which he has held for the past four years, because “I’m tired.”

He said, however, that he expected to remain involved in “some but not all” of the more than two dozen school-desegregation cases in which he has actively participated.

Mr. Atkins said, for example, that he would continue to represent the plaintiffs in Lidell v. The Board of Education, in which the n.a.a.c.p. and the St. Louis public schools last year negotiated a landmark settlement with 23 suburban school districts in a metropolitan desegregation plan. That case now appears to be headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in February upheld a lower court’s decision to hold the state liable for half the costs of the plan, an estimated $63 million. Missouri has asked the High Court to review the appellate court’s decision.

Mr. Atkins said he also expected to remain involved in cases in Los Angeles and in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati case also was settled out of court, but the naacp has asked that 17 suburban school districts previously dismissed from the suit be reintroduced to the case.

The 44-year-old attorney submitted his notice of resignation to the naacp in April but it did not become publicly known until this month. ''I’ve indicated that I will be leaving on or about July 1,” Mr. Atkins said.

That is the same day that Jack Greenberg, longtime director of the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund, will leave his post. Mr. Greenberg announced his decision to resign this month.

Shared Responsibility

The naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund is the organization with which the naacp has shared major responsibility for most of the nation’s school-desegregation cases. Once the legal arm of the naacp, the fund was established as a separate organization in the early 1960’s to preserve the tax-exempt status of the naacp. The impact of the simultaneous departures of both men on future school desegregation cases remains unclear.

Nathaniel R. Jones, former general counsel of the naacp, said, “it can be a serious development.”

“Since the split [between the two organizations],” he continued, “there has been a sort of informal division of labor in the school area.” He said that the fund continued to litigate desegegration cases in the South while the naacp general counsel tackled those in the North and West.

The naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund in recent years has fought efforts by the U.S. Justice Department under the Reagan Administration to persuade the courts to end busing programs in Nashville and Baton Rouge in favor of plans that call for strictly voluntary desegregation measures.

Successor Unknown

There is no clear successor to Mr. Atkins, as there was in 1980 when Mr. Jones resigned the post to accept an appointment as judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. At that time, Mr. Atkins had worked as an assistant to the general counsel for nearly 10 years and Mr. Jones recommended that Mr. Atkins succeed him in that post. During the three years preceding Mr. Jones’s departure, Mr. Atkins was responsible for all of the naacp’s school-desegregation cases.

“It was the private initiative of the naacp that kept the issue [of school desegregation] alive during the Nixon and Ford Administrations,” said Mr. Jones. “It has been Tom who has kept these cases on the front burner [during the Reagan Administration].” He added that Mr. Atkins’s resignation “can mean a great deal unless Tom is given the responsibility and authority as a special counsel [a private attorney hired by the naacp] to pursue these cases,” he said.

Internal Difficulties

Mr. Atkins’s resignation comes at a time when internal disagreements in the naacp have received national attention.

Last year, Margaret Bush Wilson, then chairman of the naacp, suspended the group’s executive director, Benjamin Hooks, charging that he mismanaged the
organization. She later reinstated him, but she was subsequently asked to step down by the group’s board of directors and this year was not re-elected to the board.

The naacp has also struggled with financial problems in recent years. According to a 1982 auditor’s report released recently by Mr. Hooks to The New York Times, the naacp was found to have an $828,000 deficit, although its special-contributions fund, with which school-desegregation and other special programs are supported, was $349,000 in the black.

Mr. Atkins said he did not expect the organization’s financial difficulties to cause a “cessation” of desegregation litigation. “The naacp is always broke but it is more broke at some times than others,” he said. “We’ve always managed to find the money with which to operate. Oh yes, we’ll have financial hardships, but we’ll still do it.”

Continued Activism Predicted

Mr. Atkins said he believed the aggressiveness with which the group will pursue future desegregation cases will depend, in part, on who succeeds him and, in part, “on the extent to which there are other cases to be filed.”

“It has been my experience,” Mr. Atkins added, “that when there are cases to be filed, they will be filed.” If anything, he said, there will be a “continued intensity of cases because of the dunderheads we’ve got in the White House and their Neanderthal attitudes on civil rights. The fact is that I will remain involved in a number of cases. I will be doing it privately, rather than as an attorney of the naacp I wouldn’t be doing it institutionally.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 1984 edition of Education Week as N.A.A.C.P. Counsel Resigns; Will Remain Involved in Cases