Struggles hamper Southern-based civil rights group

Associated Press | 8/5/2009, 5:33 a.m.

Founded in 1909, the NAACP has more than a half-million members throughout the country, compared with the SCLC’s current 10,000.

The SCLC “never really had the same cache, which leads some to wonder exactly what it is the SCLC actually does,” said Cobb, the Spelman professor. “If the SCLC is a protest organization, it’s been overshadowed by people like [the Revs. Jesse] Jackson and [Al] Sharpton. If they’re an institution-building group, which institutions and where?”

Attracting younger members has been a priority. Wimbish estimated about 20 percent of the current membership is made up of 18- to 30-year-olds. But the group has no college chapters, unlike the NAACP, and attempts to introduce modern-day technology like Internet social networking sites have been difficult for older members.

Other setbacks have also stalled momentum. In June, less than 1,000 people came to the Mississippi Delta for a march to raise awareness about poverty in America in the spirit of King’s Poor People’s Campaign. Organizers had hoped for 50,000. And the conference has been without a leader since Charles Steele, a former Alabama lawmaker and funeral director, left in February after raising money and helping quell some of the infighting.

Whoever leads the SCLC going forward will need to shift away focus on traditional civil rights work and bridge the generational gap. Recommendations for a new leader will be made to the board at the group’s convention, but a decision is not expected for several months. Among the list of candidates is King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King.

In the future, the group will need to form alliances with other civil rights groups, said Wimbish, echoing a sentiment recently expressed by the NAACP.

“The days of us functioning on our own are numbered,” Wimbish said. “To remain viable in the 21st century, you have to be part of a coalition.”

(Associated Press)