Civil Rights Group Struggles To Remain Relevant

Organizations led by civil rights leaders Dorothy Height and Benjamin Hooks, who both died this month, were in the forefront of the fight for equal rights, but they are now struggling to stay relevant. And nowhere is that fight more evident than in the group founded by Martin Luther King Jr.: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Just answering questions about the SCLC is a challenge these days. Take last week, when two factions of the group had dueling board meetings.

In Atlanta, board member Bernard Lafayette declared: "The meeting of the board, the national board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is here."

But hundreds of miles away, in rural Eutaw, Ala., board member Markel Hutchins said: "This is the only official meeting of the national board of directors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."

The venerable civil rights group has been embroiled in a power struggle for months — ever since it elected Bernice King to be president of the organization her father helped form. That was in October, and she has yet to be installed. She did not returned phone calls from NPR seeking comment.

Two board officers, Chairman Raleigh Trammel of Ohio and Treasurer Spiver Gordon of Alabama, are the target of federal, state and internal SCLC investigations into whether some $500,000 has been misspent. They were voted out by a special board meeting in Atlanta earlier this month.

"We love them as our brothers and sisters," said Lafayette, a spokesman for that group. "But we won't tolerate and will not stand for the mismanagement of our funds."

Trammel and Gordon dispute the allegations.

"Not a penny has been mishandled, and they cannot prove that a penny has been mishandled," Gordon said.

Meanwhile, both factions are going about what they say is the organization's business — sounding familiar themes that harken to the words of Martin Luther King Jr. While opening the Atlanta group's session, Bishop Calvin Woods said, "Where there is unity, there is strength."

Longtime SCLC members say the group plays a vital role in serving the disenfranchised. But some question the organization's strength in the post-civil rights era.

"Really the SCLC has struggled with being identified with one larger-than-life figure for the past 50 years," said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University. "The lesson social movement organizations can and perhaps should take away from the SCLC's struggle is that an organization should not be so intimately tied to one particular personality."

Gillespie said groups organized around the fight for civil rights are not as relevant as they once were.

"In many instances, we downplay the importance of protest organizations in an era where African-Americans have access to the franchise and have access to elective office," she said.

The organizations that have moved away from protests and toward lobbying have found success, she said. But those activities don't necessarily draw a crowd. And neither do old-fashioned mass meetings.

Gordon had called for a mass meeting during the SCLC gathering in Alabama, but only about two dozen locals showed up.

Among them was the Rev. Ernest Andrew Brooks, 24, of North Carolina, who is a new SCLC member.

"What is our brand?" Brooks asked. "If you ask someone on the street, 'What is SCLC?' they might say it was an organization that Dr. King used. But if you ask somebody, 'Is SCLC an organization that still exists?' I guarantee you, the average person on the street doesn't know what SCLC is doing."

Brooks said it's time for his generation to step up.

"I respect my elders, I respect the traditions of the movement," he said, "but I understand that the same people who have been arguing, fussing and fighting for 30, 40, 50 years, are the same people who continue to argue, fuss and fight in 2010, really about stuff that has no value when it comes to fighting the fights that SCLC was created to fight."

They've been given a legacy, Brooks said, and they're going to have to take the reins of the movement.

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