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.
Hutchins' claims date back to late 2009, when the board removed his benefactor, then-chairman Raleigh Trammell, of Dayton, Ohio, and the treasurer, Spiver Gordon, of Eutaw, Ala., over financial irregularities totaling $569,000. Initially, Trammell and Gordon said they would step down until the money matter was resolved. When they had not departed voluntarily by December, the board voted to kick them out. The pair sued for reinstatement. It was then that the criminal probes began. Coincidently, both Trammell and Gordon had prior convictions for fraud. The two men maintain they are still active board members and that Hutchins is SCLC's real leader, appointed by the Trammell faction.
If you follow Atlanta dramas, you may recall that the King kids appeared to have kissed and made peace among themselves over something much more solid than a man-made organization—money. In a bloodless coup, Dr. King's children—Bernice, Martin III and Dexter—wrested control of the King Center from their cousin, Isaac Farris Jr. A judge threw up his hands and told them to get out of his courtroom, go home and sort out their differences. Maybe they have. Stay tuned.
I imagine Bernice King would love to be done with the Hutchins matter by the time she officially takes over SCLC; she has remained silent during the present controversy. Former SCLC leaders, loquacious people whose bread and butter long depended on fearless speech and extreme controversy, have also been conspicuously quiet. Where are Andrew Young, Rev. Joseph Lowery and Ralph Abernathy's widow, Juanita Abernathy? Other SCLC old hands, Rev. Bernard LaFayette and Rev. C.T. Vivian, have spoken out against the internal warfare and the activities of Gordon, Trammell and Hutchins.
The judge in the civil case has set June 2 for a hearing to figure out who's in charge of the SCLC. No matter how he rules, it may all be for naught. "They will never recover. They've lost credibility," Bob Holmes, professor emeritus at Clark Atlanta University, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Whether the events of the past few months are comedy or tragedy may depend on your perception of the importance of the SCLC at this point in history.
Paul Delaney, a former reporter and editor for the New York Times, is a regular contributor to The Root.