ATLANTA – A judge ruled Wednesday against board members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who formed a breakaway faction with the group's embattled treasurer and chairman.
The ruling issued Wednesday from Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey effectively places control of the group with the faction siding with the Rev. Bernice King, who was elected last October to lead the group.
The SCLC was co-founded by King's father, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, Joseph Lowery and others in 1957 and was a leading force in the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.
Last fall, federal and local authorities launched an investigation of allegations that the SCLC chairman and treasurer mismanaged at least $569,000 of the group's money. The two denied the allegations and have continued to challenge their dismissal by some board members.
Chairman Raleigh Trammell and Treasurer Spiver Gordon have not been criminally charged, but the SCLC has spent nearly a year in court, wrangling over control of the organization. Separate factions that both claimed to be the SCLC's board of directors met hundreds of miles apart earlier this year, and each claimed to make moves on the group's behalf to save it from its legal woes and infighting. Last month, both sides held their annual conventions in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Bernice King has declined to take office, delaying her installation until the SCLC's legal issues could be resolved.
The 37-page order favored the plaintiffs in the case, recognizing their meetings and actions as legal and valid, including the appointment or removal of any officers during that time period by that group.
The court banned the defendants — including Trammell, Gordon and the Rev. Markel Hutchins, who was acting as the SCLC's interim president and chief executive officer — from representing themselves as board members unless they are elected, reinstated or appointed by the board of directors recognized by the court in Wednesday's ruling.
The order also found that the defendants illegally interfered with the SCLC's downtown Atlanta headquarters, which Hutchins padlocked in May.
"Just like the first page of this order where 'judgment' is misspelled, everything in it is in error," Hutchins said, adding that he would hold a news conference on Thursday to discuss it in detail.
Plaintiff Bernard LaFayette, who worked alongside King during the civil rights movement and is a long-serving SCLC board member, said he was not surprised by the judge's decision.
"We had no doubt that the judge would rule in our favor," LaFayette told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We have followed our constitution and we did the proper things in order to maintain the integrity of our organization. We expected this outcome. We believed that justice would prevail."
LaFayette said it's time for healing the rift between the groups.
"We believe in nonviolence," he said. "We believe in forgiveness. But we are very firm that the mission and purpose of our organiation will include people who share that mission ... and are willing to work toward those goals."
LaFayette said he had not yet spoken to Bernice King about the ruling, but looked forward to her taking office now that the case has been resolved. A message left on King's cell phone was not immediately returned on Wednesday.
Sylvia Tucker, who was also a plaintiff and was appointed chairwoman to replace Trammell, said the group can now get back to its mission of helping the underserved.
"People are in need in this country and we're going to do what SCLC is supposed to do," she said. "This has taken a toll, where we could've been really out there in the community, doing the things we do best."
Southern Christian Leadership Conference: http://www.sclcnational.org