When I think of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s attempt to recapture its past greatness, the King name that comes to mind is not Bernice King, but Martin Luther King III. Bernice King is the current focal point of debate now about the corruption, mismanagement and political floundering of the SCLC only because she publicly said no to another stint as head of the of the organization.
But if you look back more than a decade to November 1997, to a press conference King III held with much fanfare, you’ll see the seeds of failure were sewn far earlier. He boldly announced that he was taking over the reins of the organization. There was momentary euphoria at the announcement. King III had a few credentials of his own as a human rights activist, a political leader in Atlanta, and a major player in the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
No one expected King to lead the organization back to SCLC’s glory days in the 1950s and 1960s when it fought towering battles for social justice and civil rights. But there was hope that he could at least make SCLC a respectable presence in the fight against poverty, police abuse, educational inequity, the slash and burn of social programs of the Republican controlled Congress, the high rates of black prison incarceration and depression level unemployment among young blacks.
King didn’t make any sweeping promises to do that but that he’d work hard to get the organization back on its feet. That didn’t happen. Instead over the next decade the SCLC spiraled downward in internecine feuds, finger pointing, charges of corruption, financial theft, gross mismanagement and worst of all growing invisibility. It would take more than a leader with the King name to change that. Some, though, still hoped that the organization could come off life support. SCLC officials pointed to an uptick in fundraising, a membership holding steady at 10,000 and even a few educational and youth programs that seemed to function. This stirred even more hope that SCLC still had a future.
Bernice King’s appointment in October 2009 to head SCLC stirred even more hope that the organization could continue to grow and become a small force in the fight for economic and political change. Now even that hope, has been dashed. In truth, though mismanagement, corruption and feuds, did take its toll on SCLC, this is not the main reason for SCLC’s sink. History, the history that is of the civil rights movement and the leaders it spawned, her dad and the others, worked against its revival as a potent civil rights force.
Dr. King apart from being a transformative and charismatic leader also had the soft, visible, odious, and virtually universally disgraced target of legal segregation as the perfect foil. The scenes of snarling police dogs, fire hoses, cartoon character Klan type police chiefs, and bomb throwing , church burning Klan nightriders, harassing, beating, and killing peaceful, praying black and white marchers who exercised their basic rights galvanized and outraged presidents, congress and worldwide public opinion.
The passage of four civil rights bills, the voting rights act within the decade of the late 1950s and 1960s, the enactment of affirmative action statues, programs, the quantum leap in the number of black elected officials, and the surge in the number of high profile black mega star millionaire TV personalities, corporate and professionals, and phenomenal expansion of the black middle class, convinced millions that the civil rights movement had achieved its goals and that the movement could now safely be tucked into the history books. It could be treated as the stuff of speeches, and sentimental memoirs, and documentaries. Other than a few isolated pockets of racism here and there, the fight was over.
The SCLC, which embodied the civil rights movement, was the first and logical casualty of the public’s stamping the epitaph on the civil rights era. Infighting, bickering, and rancor that emerged in the next two decades came to be the trademark of SCLC whenever anyone thought of or talked about the organization. Meanwhile, the legendary names that made the SCLC the towering organization for change, Joseph Lowery, Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis and Juanita Abernathy, widow of King’s closest co-worker, Ralph David Abernathy, kept either a hands off approach, lamenting the decline of the organization, or in the case of Young publicly mused that the organization had outlived its usefulness. King III also made it clear that he’d have no part in the internal disputes.
Bernice King’s departure then does not write the closing paragraph for SCLC. It will still exist as an organization, with members, funds, and some programs, and that’s a good thing. It’s just not, nor in all fairness should it be expected to be, the SCLC that did so much to bring profound change to America.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts national Capitol Hill broadcast radio talk show on KTYM Radio Los Angeles and WFAX Radio Washington D.C. streamed on ktym.com and wfax.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson