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Struggles hamper Southern-based civil rights group

Errin Haines

ATLANTA — The organization that gave birth to the modern civil rights movement is in danger of missing out on a chance to capitalize on the country’s conversation on race, despite President Barack Obama’s historic campaign and election.

Unlike the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was recently galvanized by a speech from the president on that organization’s 100th anniversary, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) — distracted by infighting and with its leadership in flux — has been largely absent from the national stage.

“People often question whether anyone would notice if the NAACP disappeared,” said Spelman College history professor William Jelani Cobb. “The more damning question is, why haven’t people noticed that the SCLC is still here?”

Co-founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the SCLC’s mission is to “save the soul of America.” The group, however, has first had to work on saving itself. The SCLC’s annual convention opened last weekend in Memphis, Tenn., where King was killed in 1968.

The group’s general counsel, Dexter Wimbish, said the SCLC has been focused on rebuilding and addressing issues that don’t always make headlines.

“We’re not the old SCLC,” Wimbish said. “We’re younger and more vibrant. We’re poised to remain a relevant fixture in the arena of civil and human rights as we go into the future.”

Internal bickering has overshadowed signs of progress that included paying off millions in debt and opening a $3 million headquarters in Atlanta. A former state director in Florida accused several national leaders of financial mismanagement and the president of the Los Angeles chapter last fall clashed with leadership over his support for gay marriage in California.

“When you have the older leadership, sometimes it’s harder for them to readily embrace the changing society we’re in,” said the Rev. Eric Lee, president of the 4,000-member SCLC of Greater Los Angeles, the group’s largest chapter.

Lee is among the SCLC’s younger leaders at age 51, but the national board of directors — historically made up of older civil rights-era stalwarts — is becoming younger, too.

“There needs to be a change in the board, with people who understand the types of challenges with equity issues going on in our society and that justice is not just a black-and-white issue; it’s a human issue,” Lee said.

A clearer agenda that resonates with today’s generation would help, said Kendra King, a professor at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.

“I think it’s important that the SCLC capture the hope, desire and ambition of this new generation of young people who are talented, educated and know what’s going on,” she said.

Obama could be a major factor in that strategy. He spoke as a Democratic presidential candidate at the SCLC’s 2007 convention in Atlanta, which coincided with the group’s 50th anniversary, but the group hasn’t quite taken advantage of his election like the NAACP.

When Obama thanked the NAACP for its sacrifice and rallied blacks to take responsibility for their futures on July 16, it was a watershed moment for the group called by longtime activist and NAACP chairman Julian Bond as the “biggest, baddest, oldest civil rights organization in the country.”

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)