By Hazel Trice Edney, NNPA Editor-in-Chief –
NEW YORK (NNPA) - The Rev. Bernice King, elected nine months ago as the first woman president to serve at the helm of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has yet to be sworn in due to circumstances that she has described as “a sad state of affairs”.
Speaking publicly for the first time about the debilitating strife and conflict that has erupted in the 53-year-old civil rights organization and landed in court, King was pointed and clear. The second daughter and youngest child of Dr. Martin Luther King and Corretta Scott King, she told the attentive audience of more than 200 members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the Black Press of America, that the infighting has been heart-rending.
“Up until now, I have not spoken publicly about the conflict and turmoil currently suffocating, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of such significant historic importance to the Black community, America and global progress. What a timely and wonderful occasion for me to express some of my thoughts and feelings about the great organization my father co-founded. God certainly has a way of orchestrating the proper audience, at the proper time.,” King said June 17, opening a luncheon speech during NNPA’s 70th Anniversary Convention. “As SCLC’s president-elect and daughter of its founder, I am, of course, deeply troubled and saddened by the strife and conflict the organization is experiencing. It is, indeed, a sad state of affairs. I was elected to serve as SCLC’s first female president in October 2009 and as soon as I was elected -- turmoil erupted. Amidst the conflict, chaos and confusion, there are some who declare the Southern Christian Leadership Conference dead; an organization of a bygone era.”
Although the organization is no stranger to conflict, the current fight started last fall over the removal of two former board members, ex-chairman Raleigh Trammell and ex-treasurer Spiver Gordon, after allegations that the two mismanaged SCLC funds. Since then, the crux of the infighting has been over who are the true board members. The two men have refused to step aside despite federal and local investigations. The split has essentially become like two SCLCs.
The feud between two factions came to a head over an alleged break-in at the group’s Atlanta headquarters.
According to reports, the Rev. Markel Hutchins, who claims he was recently named interim president, CEO and CFO of the group, welded shut the back doors of the headquarters and padlocked three gates May 17.
His rivals, including SCLC Chairwoman Sylvia Tucker, contend his claims to the presidency and other positions are bogus and, in a statement, called his actions “criminal and deplorable.” Hutchins said there was no theft, but admits he made the decision to secure the building.
"I am not responsible for the mess the SCLC is in, but I will be responsible for helping to right some of the wrongs and get the organization back on course to fulfill its mission," he was quoted by the Associated Press. The padlocks and chains were removed from the building on May 19.
The factional breech is obviously deep. The battle was scheduled to continue in court on Monday, June 28. In a nutshell the question over who controls the organization was to be decided by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey, who began hearing the case, June 2.
In its long history, the SCLC has been no stranger to controversy. Nearly seven years ago, concluded a convention in Jacksonville, Fla. that was so contentious that police was called to keep the peace. Her brother, Martin Luther King III ended his seven-year tenure of leading the organization in 2004.
King exuded the passion and vision of her father and the poise and resolve of her mother as she expressed both hope and disdain in the midst of the latest crisis.
“Once the court hearing is resolved, it is my hope and prayer that SCLC will see the absolute necessity of immediately turning its attention to rebuilding the entire organization from the inside out; with proper governance, internal controls, fiscal accountability and sound management practices, so that it can effectively be about the business of social progress; predicated upon an unwavering love for God, responsibility to community, and a commitment to advancing human dignity and respect,” she said. “God called me to lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and as long as He calls, I will answer. I look forward to beginning my tenure in God’s time so that SCLC can once again forge strategic alliances to continue the movement of nonviolent social change, based on Biblical principles, into the next generation. I ask for your prayers that SCLC will be a phoenix rising out of the ashes. I hope that you will join me in looking past the regrettable conflict, toward a bright and promising future.”
King appealed to NNPA, under the leadership of Los Angeles Sentinel Publisher Danny Bakewell, Sr., NNPA chair, to escalate the historic mission of the Black Press in its quest for justice alongside the SCLC and other civil rights organizations. This level of unity has been in the works as prominent civil rights leaders, Marc Morial of the National Urban League, Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action network were all keynote speakers at the convention as part of Bakewell’s vision.
“I believe that the power of the Black Church and Black uplift organizations - partnered with the power of the African-American press - can be a catalyst for the next generation of social change. We have certainly accumulated enough power to enforce change,” King said. “Together we can make events happen. Our ‘nettlesome task’ now is to organize our power, focus our efforts and utilize our collective strength in strategic ways not yet employed in the work of social progress for the Black community. We must now take the major step of “examining the levers of power” which Black America “must grasp to influence the course of events” adversely affecting the progress of our people.”
Without knowing it, she echoed sentiments expressed by Sharpton on the morning of the same day as she focused on the historic and strategic relationship between the Black church and the Black press.
“I surmise that the Black Church and Black Press are two of the most powerful levers to influence social change that we have at our disposal. A recipe for a powerful alliance is the church with its weekly gathering of congregants and the press with its ongoing circulation of news. Just imagine a unified agenda harnessing the power of community; with cohesion in informing and educating the masses. Building bridges between the press and the pulpit is critical to our success. We must exercise our collective power strategically.”
This racial progress that has been forged by this historic partnership is, in part, the reason that the SCLC must remain powerful and thrive, she concludes:
“To suggest that the SCLC is obsolete and a relic of a bygone era is to ignore the great social and economic ills stalling the progress of our nation. At a time when monies are at deficit to save our schools, but at a surplus to grow and build more prisons, now is not the time to pull the plug on SCLC.”