Two factions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gathered Monday for separate meetings, hundreds of miles apart, with each group claiming to be the SCLC’s board of directors as the embattled 53-year-old civil rights organization struggles to survive amid legal woes and bitter infighting.
A few dozen participants arrived Monday for a two-day meeting at West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta as a separate group prepared to meet more than 200 miles away at a National Guard armory in Eutaw, Ala.
National SCLC spokesman Bernard LaFayette said Monday in Atlanta that an ongoing internal investigation has led much of the board to believe that the group’s ousted chairman and treasurer have mishandled at least $569,000 and more funds and individuals may be involved. The ousted chairman and treasurer have denied wrongdoing.
LaFayette said the inquiry should be completed in time for the SCLC’s annual convention in Atlanta this August. At the convention, the SCLC also expects to install its president-elect, the Rev. Bernice King, who was elected in October. She is the daughter the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a co-founder of the SCLC.
It is not clear which group is in charge or authorized to conduct the organization’s business. The SCLC’s Web site lists members of the board of directors that are being contested. The group meeting in Atlanta said their rivals are improperly representing the SCLC. The Atlanta group said it planned to ask a Fulton County judge on Tuesday to intervene.
In a statement Monday, the Rev. James Bush – listed as acting president and recording secretary of the board – said the Eutaw group anticipated “a productive board meeting with detailed reports … and an informative, energizing training session for our chapter leaders.”
The statement said the board’s agenda would include the annual budget, committee appointments, internal investigations and the national agenda.
The Atlanta meeting appeared to have to have a similar agenda. LaFayette told those gathered in the basement of the Atlanta church that the organization had been weakened by the recent turmoil, but that they were not alone.
“We need to come together as a family,” LaFayette said. “We need to get ourselves prepared and repaired. That’s what we’ve been working on … The fight is not over. Your being here is going to make all the difference.”
The divide centers on the SCLC’s recently ousted chairman and treasurer, who are under federal, state and internal investigation over allegations of financial mismanagement involving more than $569,000. Earlier this month, 19 of the group’s 44 board members met and voted unanimously to get rid of the Rev. Raleigh Trammell of Ohio as chairman of the board and Spiver Gordon of Alabama as treasurer.
It is unclear whether Bernice King will participate in the Atlanta meeting, but LaFayette said she would be working with the board ahead of her installation as the group’s troubles work their way through the court system.
The SCLC was co-founded by ministers Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, Joseph Lowery and others in 1957 and was a leading force in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. The group’s general counsel, Dexter Wimbish, said the group is being “purified” and is at a critical point.
Gathered in the church where Abernathy once preached, the crowd answered with applause and amens as Wimbish told them their task was not just to fulfill the organization’s mission of “redeeming the soul of America,” but also to redeem the soul of the SCLC.
“It’s time for those who would pimp the organization to step aside,” Wimbish said. “But when they step aside, what do we have left? Despite what some may say, I believe the SCLC is here to stay. It is ordained by Christ, and it shall not fail.”
Chapter presidents were asked to discuss their needs and priorities with each other. Chairman Sylvia Tucker reassured the group that the SCLC was still relevant and viable after months of battling in the courtroom and the media.
“I got a feeling that everything’s gonna be all right,” Tucker said, invoking the spirit of King, their founding president. “We have to continue to keep his dreams a reality.”