The Last Gasp of the SCLC

The struggle for control of the dying civil rights organization has descended into buffoonery.

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Getty Images

What a difference a generation makes. We’ve gone from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founders’ sexcapades–infamously taped by the original TMZ gang, J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI voyeurs–to the continuing buffoonery of their heirs and disciples.

The evolving scenario involves charges and counter-charges over who’s running the joint; characterizations of opponents as “thugs,” “renegades” and “criminals,” threats by all involved to file criminal charges against each other and running legal battles and a night-time raid on the SCLC Atlanta headquarters that stokes memories of a famous “third-rate burglary” of yore.

The current dust-up began one day (or night) last week when the Rev. Markel Hutchins of Atlanta welded the backdoor shut and then padlocked the gates to the parking lot of the aging and seriously ailing civil rights group’s headquarters. In an Alexander Haig-like pronouncement, Hutchins declared, “I am the interim president and chief executive officer of the SCLC.” He seemed also to be security. He acknowledged being the welder and wielder of the locks, but claimed he did so to protect the property; he used cover of night, he explained, so not to disrupt the staff’s busy workday. “They claimed we … broke into the office,” the self-proclaimed leader allowed. “I cannot break into my own office.”

Not so fast, said the other side, headed by the Rev. Bernice King, the youngest child of SCLC founder, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She is the president-elect of the SCLC, but her ascension is not effective until the annual convention this summer. Hutchins was never elected to anything, not even to the board, her faction says. Sylvia Tucker, the SCLC chairman, strongly condemned the Atlanta minister. “Hutchins has never been a member of the board of directors or a national officer of the SCLC,” she said. “Hutchins has never been elected as CEO or interim president. This conduct is criminal and deplorable. It is like a hate crime. It makes my stomach churn.”

She may be one of the few who cares at all. Many people may not have known that the organization founded in 1957 by Martin Luther King Jr. and a group of young ministers still existed. Some say that, perhaps, the organization actually died decades ago, if not after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, certainly later under his bumbling successor, Ralph D. Abernathy. Georgia State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, whose civil rights career began as an SCLC volunteer in 1960, at age 15, noted that not even Hoover could kill the group. “The Klan couldn’t destroy the SCLC and the CIA couldn’t destroy the SCLC. Those who killed Dr. King didn’t destroy the SCLC. It’s those who claim to love SCLC that are destroying it from within. And I’m talking about all of them.”

The organization has seen better days. It was a major player during the civil rights era that forced significant social changes in the country. The SCLC was one of the big six of the movement–the others were the NAACP, National Urban League, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Congress of Racial Equality.

With Dr. King as its shining star, the SCLC and its allies engraved into modern American history such city names as Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery and Memphis. But an attempt to transfer success in the South above the Mason-Dixon Line to “northernize” the movement in Chicago, was a total bust. Besides strong opposition from a Richard J. Daley Machine that included many black politicians, SCLC found a formidable foe in rival preachers of the National Baptist Convention USA, and its leader, Joseph Jackson. Jackson was so strongly against the movement that he changed the address of his Chicago headquarters to a side street when the boulevard it was on was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. But after King’s death, neither Abernathy nor a succession of followers could revive SCLC. Its local leaders kept the dream alive with initiatives and activities that scored a few local successes. But the SCLC has not been a major force on the national stage in decades.