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Civil rights group says it's `here to stay'

But after 50 years, what is the goal of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference?

August 06, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Three years ago, when Charles Steele Jr. became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he worked out of a cramped headquarters without power or light. The embattled civil rights group's funds were scant, and so, too, was it's sense of mission.

Its fortunes have since changed, and the organization that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. co-founded is marking its 50th anniversary today with the opening of a $3-million international headquarters here. The building, which Steele says is debt-free, represents just half of the funds the SCLC has raised from corporate sponsors since he became president.

For Steele, 61, a former Alabama state senator, the group's new red brick home is a fitting emblem of its newfound stability. After decades of speculation about its future -- factions fought so bitterly during the group's 2004 convention that police were called -- the SCLC, he says, "is here to stay."

Yet questions remain about its mission.

When it was founded in 1957 by King and other Southern black ministers, its goal was to build on success of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, which led to Alabama's segregation laws being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Today, the SCLC describes itself as "committed to nonviolent action to achieve social, economic and political justice." But critics say it has secured financial backing from corporations not by updating its mission to address current injustices, but by promoting its historic role.

"The question is not whether the SCLC has a new building, but whether it has a new agenda," said Markel Hutchins, a young civil rights activist who competed with Steele for the presidency in 2004. "And that remains to be seen."

The SCLC has struggled to define its agenda since King's assassination in 1968, said David Garrow, the historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."

In a sense, he said, the institution has become a victim of its own success. "The SCLC came into existence in an era when black people were excluded from public office," he said. "What political agenda can the SCLC address that black elected officials in the South for some reason would be overlooking? That's the fundamental problem for the SCLC."

The problem extends to most, if not all, of the nation's civil rights groups. For instance, the Baltimore-based National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, is locked in a long-running dispute about its direction.

In recent years, the growth of the black middle class has led to a rise of more moderate, even conservative, brands of black political leadership.

One logical way of differentiating the SCLC, Garrow said, might be to adopt a more radical stance than elected officials, highlighting issues such as poverty and representing what King called "the least of these." But that, he said, could be problematic for a group seeking corporate sponsors.

The SCLC's challenges are further compounded by new trends in religious worship: The smaller, progressive African American churches that gave birth to the group have, to some extent, found their influence supplanted by rapidly growing megachurches, which tend to emphasize individual prosperity over social justice.

In many ways, the SCLC has begun to adapt to this transition. Individual financial responsibility is a key theme of this week's golden-anniversary convention. Activists were to discuss "Financial Empowerment: Building Wealth" and "Financial Planning and Wealth Creation," as well as the more traditional discussion of voter education and conflict resolution.

Reaching out to conservative megachurch pastors and embracing the prosperity gospel marks quite a contrast, if not contradiction, from King's teachings, said William Boone, a political professor of Clark Atlanta University.

During its 1960s heyday, the SCLC staged anti-segregation protests across the South, most notably the 1963 Birmingham march where police attacked marchers with dogs and fire hoses. It also organized the March on Washington, which led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and then the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, which created support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After King's assassination in 1968, the group suffered from decades of leadership struggles and stagnant membership. In 2004, President Fred Shuttlesworth resigned, submitting a two-page letter that expressed little hope of reviving the organization: "Only God," he said, "can give life to the dead."

Just three years later, Steele contends he has done just that. Reviving the SCLC, he said, depended on emphasizing its historical association with King.

"We have to brand Martin Luther King to the SCLC," Steele said. "In that way, we're institutionalizing the SCLC, regardless of who is head of SCLC."

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