Black America Web
ATLANTA—As the nation commemorates the birth of civil rights icon Rev. Martin Luther King, the organization he co-founded to help lead in the struggle finds itself looking for rebirth, leaders say.
Marred by more than a year of lawsuits and internal controversy, the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference has reinvigorated its board of directors, is starting new chapters and continuing its efforts to teach the principles and practice of non-violence at home and abroad.
“We now have the son of Rev. Ralph Abernathy on the board, the daughter of Rev. Joseph Lowery and the daughter of Hosea Williams serving along with Martin Luther King III, who also is head of the King Center,” board member Dr. Bernard Lafayette told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
“The SCLC is stronger now than it has ever been,” said Lafayette. “We still are in a battle, but we’re still strong. Sometimes going through a struggle gives you the strength you need."
Lafayette speaks from experience. The 71-year-old was a college student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville when he boarded the bus for the very first Freedom Ride from Tennessee to Mississippi. The riders endured hostility all along the way in the segregated South.
Despite its board changes, SCLC is still without a president. The Rev. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin and Corretta Scott King, was elected president in 2009, but has not yet taken office.
“I talked with her last night at a dinner,” Lafayette said. He is not certain where she currently stands on assuming the presidency.
Dr. Howard Creecy, interim president of the SCLC, said the organization’s personnel committee is working with Bernice King, and he does not know the status of those conversations.
Creecy was elected vice president of the SCLC in its new leadership structure. That means he serves as acting president when there is no president.
“Right now, we are focused on restoring the viability and visibility of SCLC,” Creecy told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
“To say that we were not disrupted by the days of darkness and despair would be untrue,” he said. "There are those of us who took a stand for what is right. The dark days are behind us, and we are leading toward that marvelous light.”
Dueling SCLC factions split last year over allegations that former board Chairman Raleigh Trammell and former Treasurer Spiver Gordon had mismanaged more than $569,000 of SCLC money. Both leaders refused to step aside pending federal and local investigations.
Trammell and Gordon have denied the claims. Neither Trammell nor Gordon has been charged in connection with the national SCLC allegations.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey, in a 37-page order, said that the SCLC board of directors, led by national SCLC chairman Rev. Sylvia Tucker, controls the organization. The judge banned Trammell, Gordon and interim executive director and president Rev. Markel Hutchins from acting as board members unless they are elected or reinstated by the currently recognized board.
Last week, Trammell was indicted and a warrant was issued for his arrest after a grand jury in Montgomery County, Ohio charged him with grand theft, forgery and tampering with government records.
Attempts to reach Trammell were unsuccessful. Both he and Gordon have denied anyone wrongdoing.
The charges in Ohio are in connection with a feeding program Trammell ran through the Dayton SCLC and a ministerial group, which he also headed.
Montgomery County paid Trammell for meals that were not delivered, said Greg Flannagan, a spokesman.
"This defendant abused his position of trust and hid behind his title and position in order to perpetrate these crimes," Prosecutor Mathias Heck Jr. said in a statement. "Not only did he steal taxpayer money, but he denied meals as promised to elderly and frail citizens in our community."
The local SCLC and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance lost all of their county funding as a result of the actions, Flannagan said.
Tucker said she was not concerned that the indictment would affect SCLC's overall image.
"We have always tried to do the right thing," she said.
Art Rocker, special assistant to the chairman, agreed and said the current SCLC has worked to correct the organization’s structure and return it to its core mission.
“The SCLC is about serving the underprivileged and the underserved and standing up for those who have not had a voice,” Rocker told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “The SCLC is not about greed.”
In earlier reports, Bernice King had indicated she wanted to wait until the controversy cleared before taking the helm of the organization.
The national SCLC currently is focusing much of its energy on the Gulf and efforts to help those who lost income because of last April’s oil disaster. Marches are planned today in Mobile, Alabama and in Houma, Louisiana, Rocker said.
“We will be chanting and carrying signs with messages like, 'Where’s the check? Make us whole,'” Rocker said.
Thousands of people who work along the Gulf but conduct their business on a cash-only basis have been unable to get paid through the relief fund set up by BP because they do not have bank records or W-2 forms, Rocker said.
“There were more than 600,000 people involved in drilling, and the average salary was about $40,000,” Rocker said. “This group was the propeller for the economy. They are the ones who went to the barber shops, bought fish sandwiches on the corner. They are the ones who paid tithes at church."
“We are calling for a global settlement for the low income people. We don’t want a situation where they pick and choose who gets paid,” Rocker said. “We will not sit idly by while $21 billion is paid in claims, and the underserved are left out.”
The efforts along the Gulf have led to an increase in the number of SCLC chapters, Creecy said. He is also looking to increase membership by reaching out to younger people. The long-term viability of the SCLC depends on it, he said.
“We must make sure that we have generational representation and gender representation at the table,” Creecy said.
Lafayette, who is speaking today at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota, said young people are interested now in SCLC because they are realizing that they have a responsibility to work for change.
“Because of our history, we know how to build a movement. We don’t just raise an issue, we do something about it – changing the hearts and minds of people,” Lafayette said.
On the Gulf, the SCLC has leveled a multi-faceted approached. Rocker and others have taken the concerns of the poor and unemployed to oil spill claims czar Ken Feinberg and his staff. And they also have organized marches and rallies.
The key, Lafayette said, is to keep non-violence at the core in approaching each issue. “It still works.”