On Tuesday, the day after the nation officially celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suspended Southern Christian Leadership Conference Board Chair Raleigh Trammell of Dayton, Ohio and Treasurer Spiver Gordon, a resident of Eutaw, Ala., are scheduled to appear in an Atlanta court to contest their dismissals amid allegations that they directly benefited from a secret $500,000 board account. To the public, SCLC, co-founded by Dr. King, has been on the rise after almost going out of business in 2004. Charles Steele, Jr., one of my childhood friends from Tuscaloosa, Ala., brought the organization back from the brink of extinction as president and CEO, raising $8 million during his tenure from 2004 to 2009.
Approximately $3.3 million of that amount was used to build a new SCLC headquarters on historic Auburn Avenue. Even civil rights icon Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth –who once referenced SCLC by saying, “Only God can give life to the dead” –acknowledged the civil rights group had returned from the dead under the leadership of Steele, now an Atlanta businessman. While the public perception of SCLC was that it had finally rebounded, Trammell was busy getting the board to revise the organization’s bylaws, shifting many of the powers traditionally held by the president to him. Dexter M. Wimbish, the general counsel, was directed to report to Trammell instead of President Steele. Against the counsel of his closest advisers, Steele went along with the power shift, arguing that his personal friendship with Trammell would still allow him to function effectively.
That Trammell and Gordon could rise to top board positions should have been an embarrassment within itself. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Nov. 10, 2004 that Trammell “went to prison in the 1970s for cheating a county welfare department in Ohio.”
Gordon, the SCLC treasurer, lost his city council seat in Alabama after pleading guilty in 1999 to federal vote fraud charges. He admitted that he had asked a person who lived outside of Greene County to fill out an absentee ballot and falsely list a county address. Gordon was sentenced to six months in federal prison, given three years of supervised probation and fined $2,000. In the rough-and-tumble world of SCLC board politics, Trammell and Gordon have survived because they were among the last people standing.
Their fall from favor is tied to the unaudited secret account, described by one SCLC insider as “a slush fund.” Approximately $500,000 has flowed through the account over the past three years, including about $200,000 said to have been siphoned off from a prison ministry program operated by Gordon. Although some SCLC staff members were told that the account, opened in Eutaw, Ala. and supervised by Gordon, was subject to an outside audit, no record of an audit has been uncovered. Also, there is no known record of tax returns ever being filed for the account. Some SCLC board members said they had no knowledge that the secret account existed.
Charles Steele raised questions about the account before he resigned a year ago. Steele feared that contributions to SCLC would dry up if the public ever learned about the secret fund. Once Attorney Wimbish and Executive Director Ron Woods learned that there were no independent controls on the board account and suspected that some SCLC funds may have been embezzled, they felt a responsibility to share their concerns with Interim President Byron C. Clay. On October 29, the board, which had recently elected a half dozen new members, was made aware of the special fund. On November 13, Trammell and Gordon were removed from their board positions, with the new members casting the critical votes against them.
Even before the vote, efforts were made to get Trammell to quietly step aside. A longtime former assistant, based in Dayton, filed a sexual harassment complaint against him with a state human rights agency. Persons familiar with the complaint say the assistant claims to have sexually-explicit videotapes of Trammell, a married minister. She is also said to be ready to make additional allegations that, if true, could lead to his returning to prison.
Rather than stepping aside, a request for an injunction was filed December 29 in Atlanta seeking to restore Trammell and Gordon to their former positions. The board infighting continues as Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the late civil rights leader, prepares to take over as the first female president of SCLC. Her oldest brother, Martin Luther King III, served as president from 1997 to 2004, but left after a bitter dispute with the board.
According to several people who serve on the board or staff of SCLC, Trammell said that under his leadership, no woman or another member of the King family would serve as president of the organization. However, the self-styled master politician made a major miscalculation.
As a condition for accepting the job as interim president and CEO of SCLC, Byron Clay requested – and got – about six people added to the board. Trammell campaigned for the election of former Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Wendell Griffen as president and presumed he had the votes of the new board members recruited by Clay. He presumed wrong. Instead of going with Trammell’s candidate, all of them backed King, providing the margin for her 23-15 victory.
If Bernice King is to be successful at SCLC, she’ll need to get rid of Trammell, Gordon and those aligned with them for good.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.
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