RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Later today, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will elect a new president, and that's especially newsworthy because the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could end up leading the civil rights group. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The SCLC board will choose between two finalists for the top job: former Arkansas Judge Wendell Griffen and the Reverend Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. He cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was its first president. Even today, Martin Luther King's words greet visitors to the group's Web site.
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. (Civil Rights Activist): The SCLC stood at the forefront of all of the watershed movements. But the problem is far from solved.
ELLIOTT: Observers say this could be a defining moment in the SCLC's history.
Mr. RALPH LUKER (Civil Rights Historian): I think it's crucial for the survival of the organization.
ELLIOTT: Ralph Luker is 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.
Mr. LUKER: It's been some years since SCLC had a clear sense of its reason for being.
ELLIOTT: In the last 15 years, the group has had four presidents, including Martin Luther King III and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who both had power struggles with the SCLC board of directors. Shuttlesworth even declared the organization dead.
With its vote today, the 40-member board will be looking for stability and a strong leader, says board member Bernard LaFayette.
Mr. BERNARD LAFAYETTE (Board Member, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): We need a person who has a national presence and who has a national voice.
ELLIOTT: LaFayette and other board members are not revealing who they'll pick, but he did say the King legacy is important. Bernice King declined to be interviewed for this story, but she told 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 you're put on hold calling her office, you hear a sample of Bernice King's fiery sermons - sermons like the one she gave from the pulpit at her mother, Coretta Scott King's funeral in 2006.
Dr. BERNICE KING (Motivational Speaker, Minister): 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.
ELLIOTT: 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, 57-year-old Judge Wendell Griffen of Little Rock, is also an ordained Baptist minister. He lost a reelection 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. Then-Governor Bill Clinton later appointed him to run a state agency. Griffen says he's been the beneficiary of civil rights work and believes the SCLC still has a role to play.
Judge WENDELL GRIFFEN (Baptist Minister, Civil Rights Activist): I think that the issue of social justice is always relevant and that the SCLC remains relevant. And the SCLC brings, unlike anybody else, that sense of moral clarity. And while issues may evolve over time, that sense of moral focus remains relevant.
ELLIOTT: Defining today's issues for the SCLC will be a tall order, says Clayborne Carson, director of the King Institute at Stanford University. Carson says the group is still organized around the freedom fight started by Martin Luther King.
Dr. CLAYBORNE CARSON (Professor of History, Director of the King Institute, Stanford University): The SCLC was set up to be Martin Luther King's organization. So I think that 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.
ELLIOTT: SCLC board members will be casting their ballots in a day-long session in Atlanta.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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