by Dexter Wimbish
(NNPA)—I was born a year after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assignation in Memphis but grew up in an era where, as the walls of Jim Crow fell, the dreams of African-Americans soared. Americans both Black and White were proud of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization he co-founded on Feb. 14, 1957 with Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Josephy Lowery, and other great religious leaders of our time.
It was their inspiration that fueled my early life and professional career that ultimately led me to volunteer my legal services when Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was named SCLC president and CEO in 2004. Less than a year later, I became the organization’s youngest general counsel, the same time Charles Steele Jr. was elected president and CEO following an attempted takeover of the organization at the Jacksonville, Fla. convention.
Yes, SCLC is struggling but it is desperately needed because its mission is still relevant in a society where despite tremendous gains in the past, the poor and disenfranchised from all walks of life needed to have an organization that’s not afraid to raise its voice in protest. I still remember the words of Dr. Shuttlesworth who was forced out after a disagreement with the board of directors when he stated “Only God can save SCLC!”
When Dr. Steele took over the reins of SCLC, he is famous for pointing out that the lights to the building had been turned off. I laugh today because it is ironic that the same company that turned off the lights in the building, the Southern Company, under Dr. Steele’s tenure would partner with SCLC to launch a major capital campaign that resulted in the construction of a debt-free $3.5 million headquarters next door to the original office of Dr. King. In addition to constructing the building, Dr. Steele led efforts to raise nearly another $3 million for major initiatives including conflict resolution, HIV Aids Awareness, taser gun reform, bringing down oil and gas prices, and closing the digital divide in minority communities. God has a way making things that seem impossible a reality.
We were all disheartened in 2009 when Dr. Steele announced he was leaving SCLC. To his credit he never boasted that Charles Steele had done anything; he always said it was God who had revived SCLC. The organization hadn’t reclaimed the power it had in the 1960s but it had turned the corner.
Dr. Steele stated at the outset that he intended to stay three to five years. After five years, he felt he had done his job. Yes, there were tensions with the board over the direction and day-to-day operations of the organization, but the organization was again relevant and solvent. In retrospect, the one thing it was not prepared to do was operate without strong leadership. I remember telling my friend Charles one day, “Mr. President you make things look too easy!” because he has a way of making you feel at ease and you just want to help him because he allows you to see his vision.
Following the departure of Dr. Steele, the organization entered a period of its darkest hour. The walls of separation between the board of directors and the day-to-day operations of the organization crumbled.
Since 2009, SCLC has been in the nation’s headlines for all the wrong reasons. The organization teeters on being cast aside an irrelevant relic of the past. Many have called for the organization’s closure. This would be an unintelligent and ill-advised outcome and one which does not have manifest itself. SCLC can be saved and it must be saved.
There must be broad-based organizational and true board reform. There must be a new SCLC infused with youth, cross-cultural representation, women, activists, scholars, and members of the business community. SCLC cannot achieve this goal with continued infighting, but we cannot also jump to the conclusion that all conflict is harmful.
Upon reading several articles over the past few weeks, it sounds like SCLC may be headed back to court as a coalition of chapter presidents and supporters argue that the board of directors is operating outside the confines of the organization’s constitution, which is reminiscent of previous claims that resulted in a deep split within the organization.
I am hopeful that this conflict will turn out much different than previous conflicts. Whenever there is a call for transparency or accountability in any aspect of life those calls demand a response. I realize at times our egos will get in the way of progress, but this is not the time to give way to personality or vanity. Charles Steele Jr. will do great things as president and CEO. I am not telling you what I have heard, I am telling you what I have seen first-hand. However, if SCLC is to reclaim its place as relevant advocate for movement and equality, there must be a major paradigm shift.
An active board of directors must be seated that sets the vision for the organization, spearheads fundraising, and allows the president and CEO to make that vision a reality. A board must spend its time shaping the larger dialogues that affect our community. There must be a level of trust that coexists between leadership, community, and membership that builds the organization up. You cannot ignore your membership base and then blame them because they demand inclusion even if they have to resort to legal means to bring about change. Instead people have to come and reason together and formulate a plan of action and then bring that plan to fruition.
Unfortunately, before any of that can truly happen there must be healing and a commitment to nonviolence. These are core principles of Kingian nonviolence, a methodology that SCLC has worked to spread across the world. Yet, before we can bring peace to the Middle East, we must bring peace to SCLC.
(Dexter Wimbish is an attorney and licensed minister, based in Atlanta, Ga. He served as the general counsel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 2004-2010. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)