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New infighting plagues Southern Christian Leadership Conference

The civil rights group, founded by Martin Luther King Jr., is divided by an ugly internal feud involving accusations of embezzling. The group's hoped-for renewal is faltering.

March 25, 2010|By Richard Fausset
  • Attorney Charles Mathis Jr., lower right, with members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's board, many of whom have called for the chairman and treasurer to resign over allegations of financial mismanagement.
Attorney Charles Mathis Jr., lower right, with members of the Southern… (Gregory Smith / Associated…)

Reporting from Atlanta — Richard Jackson was walking past the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's handsome $3-million headquarters this month, just blocks from the grave of its first president, Martin Luther King Jr.

Jackson, an aspiring rap producer, hadn't heard about the outbreak of scandal and infighting rocking the storied civil rights group.

But the 32-year-old also confessed, a little sheepishly, that he had trouble recalling their story at all: "Who are they, exactly?" he said.

Such is the plight of the modern-day SCLC.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the organization, under King's leadership, was at the vanguard of the historic struggle -- part of a coalition that organized the March on Washington, registered black voters and through protests focused the world's attention on the injustices of segregation in cities across the South.

In recent decades, however, the SCLC has largely been defined by internal bickering and financial problems.

The latest feud, over thousands of dollars in allegedly missing money, has split the group so seriously that there is disagreement about who legitimately sits on the group's board. Each side has evoked the King legacy -- if only to accuse the other of tarnishing it.

On one side are the SCLC general counsel and a board member, who have accused the group's chairman, the Rev. Raleigh Trammell, and its treasurer, Spiver Gordon, of embezzling more than $560,000 from the group since 2006.

The board member, Art Rocker, declared recently that the SCLC "will not allow pimps to pimp on the name of Dr. Martin Luther King."

Rocker's board membership, meanwhile, was revoked in January by Wilburt Shanklin, the SCLC compliance chairman -- although Rocker and his board allies call the move invalid.

Earlier this year, Rocker, along with SCLC general counsel Dexter M. Wimbish, took the bookkeeping concerns to the district attorney in Fulton County, Ga., where the national office is located.

Fulton officials and the Justice Department have acknowledged they have launched investigations. On Feb. 11, the FBI raided Trammell's Dayton, Ohio, home and the SCLC's offices there, which are headed by Trammell, said Fred Alverson, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office there.

Trammell could not be reached for comment, but Gordon -- a 70-year-old SCLC veteran who survived some of the ugliest anti-integration violence of the 1960s -- called the allegations "absolutely false" and part of a power grab.

With chapters and affiliates nationwide, the nonprofit organization aims to battle what King called the triple evils of racism, poverty and violence, but the group has struggled to make the kind of forceful impact on the culture that brought it worldwide fame in the '60s.

The current controversy has marred what was billed as a time of renewal for the 52-year-old group.

In October, it elected as president King's daughter, Bernice A. King, a 46-year-old motivational speaker and minister who is expected to reach out to a younger generation. But since the feud erupted, King has not spoken publicly about the discord.

The lack of visible leadership is worrisome to members like the Rev. Eric P. Lee, president of the SCLC of Greater Los Angeles and California. "She needs to come in there and say, 'This is what we need to do to restore SCLC's integrity,' " he said. "Unless that happens, this could be potentially devastating to SCLC."

The allegations against the group's chairman and treasurer were laid out in a Jan. 29 letter from Wimbish to Paul Howard, Fulton County district attorney.

Wimbish alleged that an internal investigation had found that Trammell and Gordon submitted "apparently false" reimbursement claims connected to a prison ministry, drew on a board travel account for personal use, and, among other things, "circumvented the internal controls of the finance committee for personal gain and benefit."

Gordon, who has been with the SCLC since 1963, said those allegations were being lodged by newcomers who didn't understand how the organization worked. "These people are out running around saying things without facts," he said.

The SCLC has been tossed by internal squabbles for years. Bernice King's brother, Martin Luther King III, served a rocky stint as president from 1998 to 2003. It was punctuated by a weeklong suspension by the board in 2001 over concerns that his leadership was too hands-off.

He was succeeded by civil rights veteran Fred Shuttlesworth, who bitterly resigned after a few months -- and charged that Trammell was spending SCLC funds without board approval.

Last November, Rocker joined the SCLC board, a few months after being chosen to head the Florida state chapter and the office in Pensacola, where he hoped to use the SCLC name to work on HIV and education issues.

He has expressed concern not only over the money that is allegedly missing, but also with Trammell's and Gordon's pasts. Both men, high-profile leaders in their communities, have criminal records.

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