Civil Rights Group Struggles To Remain Relevant

The 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 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.

President Obama delivers the eulogy at the funeral for civil rights icon Dorothy Height at the National Cathedral Thursday.

Another pioneer of the civil rights movement, the NAACP's Benjamin Hooks, died earlier this month.

Hooks and Height were longtime leaders of the movement age -- the organizations that were in the forefront of the fight for equal rights. These days, those organizations are struggling to stay relevant.

And nowhere is that struggle more evident than in the organization 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 held dueling board meetings.

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

And hundreds of miles away in rural Eutaw, Ala., board member Markel Hutchins: "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 October and she's yet to be installed, and has not returned phone calls from NPR.

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," says Bernard 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.

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

The dispute is being fought in the courts.

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, Junior.

As he opened the session in Atlanta, 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," says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.

"The lesson social movement organizations can take away from the SCLC's struggle, is that an organization should not be so intimately tied to one particular personality."

Gillespie says 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 when African-Americans have access to the franchise and have access to elective office."

Gillespie says the organizations that have moved away from protests, and toward lobbying have found success. But those activities don't necessarily draw a crowd.

But old-fashioned mass meetings don't either.

Gordon called for a mass meeting during the SCLC meeting in Greene County, Ala., but only about two dozen locals showed up.

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

"What is our brand," Brooks asks. "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 is an organization that still exists?' I guarantee you the average person on the street doesn't know what SCLC is doing."

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

"I respect my elders, I respect the traditions of the movement, 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."

We have been given this legacy, Brooks says, and we're going to have to take the reins of this movement. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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