Embattled civil rights group struggles to survive

Published April 19, 2010

ATLANTA – Two factions of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gathered Monday for separate meetings, hundreds of miles apart, with each group claiming to be the SCLC's board of directors as the embattled 53-year-old organization struggles to survive amid legal woes and bitter infighting.

A few dozen participants arrived Monday for a two-day meeting at West Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta as a separate group prepared to meet more than 200 miles away at a National Guard armory in Eutaw, Ala. It was not immediately clear what either faction's attendance would be.

In a statement Monday, the Rev. James Bush — listed as acting president and recording secretary of the board — said the Eutaw group anticipated "a productive board meeting with detailed reports ... and an informative, energizing training session for our chapter leaders."

The statement said the board's agenda would include the annual budget, committee appointments, internal investigations and the national agenda. He said the group would also provide free HIV/AIDS testing and a financial planning seminar.

The Atlanta meeting appeared to have to have a similar agenda, but without the testing and seminar. National spokesman Bernard LaFayette told those gathered in the Atlanta church's basement that the organization had been weakened by the recent turmoil, but that they were not alone.

"We need to come together as a family," LaFayette said. "We need to get ourselves prepared and repaired. That's what we've been working on ... The fight is not over. Your being here is going to make all the difference."

The divide centers on the SCLC's recently ousted chairman and treasurer, who are under federal, state and internal investigation over allegations of financial mismanagement involving more than $569,000. Earlier this month, 19 of the group's 44 board members met and voted unanimously to get rid of the Rev. Raleigh Trammell of Ohio as chairman of the board and Spiver Gordon of Alabama as treasurer.

The SCLC was co-founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957 and his youngest daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, was elected president in October. It is unclear when she will be installed or if she will participate in the Atlanta meeting, which is scheduled to include a board of directors meeting and chapter workshops.

SCLC general counsel Dexter Wimbish said the group is being "purified" and is at a critical point. The crowd answered with applause and amens as he told them their task was not just to fulfill the organization's mission of "redeeming the soul of America," but also to redeem the soul of the SCLC.

"It's time for those who would pimp the organization to step aside," Wimbish said. "But when they step aside, what do we have left? Despite what some may say, I believe the SCLC is here to stay. It is ordained by Christ, and it shall not fail."

Chapter presidents were asked to discuss their needs and priorities with each other. Chairman Sylvia Tucker reassured the group that the SCLC was still relevant and viable after months of battling in the courtroom and the media.

"I got a feeling that everything's gonna be all right," Tucker said, invoking the spirit of King, their founding president. "We have to continue to keep his dreams a reality."

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On the Net:

Southern Christian Leadership Conference: http://www.sclcnational.org

Written by ERRIN HAINES, Associated Press Writer

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