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M.L. King III: Father's Path Hard to Follow

THE NATION

August 04, 2001|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Not far from downtown, on a smooth round stone with water spilling over it, read the names of those who gave their lives to the civil rights movement. A beautifully crafted memorial, the last entry etched in the rock is Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King III essentially drags that stone behind him wherever he goes, and the burden increased recently when his own organization assailed him for not living up to his father's name.

"Every day people come up to him and say, 'Oh, your father was this, and, oh, your father was that,' " said E. Randel T. Osburn, a reverend and a friend. "If you're around Martin much, you can tell he never gets used to it."

He doesn't inspire people, his detractors say, he doesn't have his father's oratorical gifts (though few do), and this summer he was temporarily suspended as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group that the elder King founded in 1957.

This weekend King will have a chance to prove himself. The SCLC is holding its annual convention in Montgomery, the town where his father got his start.

The 43-year-old King last week released a statement defending himself and promising to sharpen the focus of his organization. He did not return phone calls for this story, but those within the SCLC say the key issues King will concentrate on are racial profiling, prisoners' rights and closing the digital divide between whites and blacks. His challenge will be staying true to the organization's proud heritage while comporting with the times.

The recent barrage of criticism has knocked the lid loose on longer-simmering resentments. The King family used to be untouchable. Now they're fair game, especially Martin, the eldest son.

"What's he really done in life?" asked Tommie Miller, head of the Montgomery Improvement Assn., another old-time civil rights organization. "Most people tend to follow a self-made man."

The elder King's success in the civil rights era has made it harder for his son to follow in his footsteps.

"The issues that gave birth to the SCLC are not around anymore," said Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "There aren't signs pointing out which one is the colored water fountain. Discrimination these days is more subtle."

In its heyday, the SCLC made a name for itself mobilizing against Jim Crow laws. Back then, the issues were clear--voting restrictions and segregated public facilities--and were ripe for confronting head-on.

The SCLC's network of Baptist preachers called out from pulpits across the South for protests, boycotts, sit-ins and marches. The ministers helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott, the voting rights march from Selma and the historic civil rights rally in Washington in 1963.

But these days, most civil rights issues don't lend themselves as well to such tactics. The battles for equal protection and affirmative action, for example, are fought in the courtroom and the boardroom, not in the streets.

Mass protests have "died out almost everywhere," Walters said. Last fall's election crisis in Florida "could have been handled like that--and Marty should have been visible there. But nobody in his generation has the mobilizing skills of the old SCLC."

Osburn, the SCLC's executive vice president and a King loyalist, said it's difficult to live up to such expectations.

Just like the elder King, the SCLC has been mythologized too, he argued.

"We were never the organization," Osburn said. "There was always the [National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People] and other groups. Part of our problem is reckoning with this nostalgia."

Since King's murder in 1968, the SCLC has watched its profile slide. Other groups, such as the NAACP and the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition--though they've had their problems--have risen in prominence.

The SCLC, headquartered in Atlanta, promotes its cause with a tight network of 70 chapters from New York to Texas. Some of its activities since King became president in 1998 include hearings on police brutality, a rally for the 37th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech and a successful campaign to change the Georgia state flag, which used to feature a large Confederate cross.

But the passion just isn't there, said several SCLC board members.

"We got to get back to the streets," said Richard Turner, a 72-year-old carpenter in rural Georgia. "Talk ain't worth a damn if you don't do something."

In June, board Chairman Claud Young, a Detroit physician, sent King a letter reprimanding him.

"You have consistently been insubordinate and displayed inappropriate, obstinate behavior in the negligent carrying out of your duties as president of SCLC. To that end, consider yourself noticed," he wrote.

Young then put King, who does not get paid for his job, on administrative leave. A week later he reinstated him.

"I felt we had to use a 2-by-4 to get his attention," Young said.

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