King's Legacy Key In Group's Leadership Vote

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is electing a new president, and for the third time in the organization's history, a member of the King family could lead the civil rights group.

The two finalists for the top job are former Arkansas Judge Wendell Griffen and the Rev. Bernice King. She is the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., who co-founded the organization and was its first president.

SCLC board members will cast their ballots in a daylong session Thursday in Atlanta.

The vote is "crucial for the survival of the organization," says Ralph Luker, a civil rights historian in Atlanta. He says after four decades of strong leadership under Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Joseph Lowery, the SCLC has limped along in recent times without "a clear sense of its reason for being."

In the past 15 years, the group has had four presidents, including Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. They both had power struggles with the SCLC board of directors. Shuttlesworth even declared the organization dead.

The 40-member board will be looking for stability and a strong leader, says board member Bernard LaFayette. "We need a person who has national presence and who has national voice."

LaFayette and other board members had not revealed who they'd pick, but LaFayette did say the King legacy is important.

King declined to be interviewed for this story. She did tell the Atlanta Journal Constitution that leading the organization her father founded is "a destiny call."

King is a 46-year-old motivational speaker and minister at a suburban Atlanta church. When callers to King's office are put on hold, they hear a sample of her fiery sermons.

For example, at her mother Coretta Scott King's funeral in 2006, King addressed social justice issues from the pulpit: "We here in this world right now are suffering from complications of cancer from materialism and greed and selfishness and arrogance and elitism and poverty and racism and perversion and obscenity and misogyny and idolatry and violence and militarism."

She recently spoke at Michael Jackson's funeral and has been in the media spotlight for a sibling legal dispute over the family business.

If she wins, King would become the first woman to run what has long been a male-dominated organization.

The other candidate for SCLC president, Griffen, 57, of Little Rock, Ark., also is an ordained Baptist minister. He lost a re-election bid last year after 13 years on the bench.

Griffen was the first African-American in Arkansas to work for a major law firm in the 1970s. Later, Gov. Bill Clinton appointed him to run a state agency.

Griffen says he has been the beneficiary of civil rights work and believes the SCLC still has a role to play.

"I think the issue of social justice is always relevant and that the SCLC remains relevant," Griffen says. "And the SCLC brings, unlike anybody else, that sense of moral clarity. While issues may evolve over time, that sense of moral focus remains relevant."

Defining today's issues for the SCLC will be a tall order, according to Clayborne Carson, the director of the King Institute at Stanford University. Carson says the group is still organized around the freedom fight started by Martin Luther King Jr.

"The SCLC was set up to be Martin Luther King's organization," Carson says. "So I think in the years since, it's been an organization in search of something or somebody to replace that initial leadership that was provided by Martin Luther King — and that's probably an undoable task."

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