Civil rights group elects M. L. King III SCLC breaks tradition in picking new president

November 02, 1997|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The civil rights movement's old freedom songs filled historic Ebenezer Baptist Church yesterday as Martin Luther King III became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The SCLC broke with tradition by electing a man who is not a preacher, not from the generation that fought the battles of 30 and 40 years ago. Yet, King, 40, is no stranger. He was an SCLC board member and has been linked to the organization ever since his father, Martin Luther King Jr., and others founded it in 1957.

Though several others were considered for the presidency, King emerged as the unanimous choice. At yesterday's meeting, he quoted liberally from his father's "I Have a Dream" speech, giving those words and his own a preacher's cadence that brought rounds of applause and shouts of "Amen."

"While he had an incredible dream of one day, that day is clearly not today," King said before a crowd that included his mother, Coretta Scott King, and brother, Dexter. "I'm not a preacher, per se, but I do have a ministry, because ministry means to teach. That ministry is the SCLC."

At times, yesterday's meeting seemed a revival of the civil rights days. Gray-haired warriors sang songs that brought to mind Freedom Rides, marches and sit-ins. The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, 75, the outgoing president, led the crowd of more than 200 in singing, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round." And when it was all over, they joined hands, swayed and sang, "We Shall Overcome."

When King officially takes on the presidency Jan. 15, his father's birthday, he will work in the same cramped building where his father worked 30 years ago. Black and white photos of his father, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, SCLC's second president, Lowery and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks hang on the walls.

The SCLC's staff numbers about 35, and its budget is about $1.5 million, Lowery said. Those numbers are small, but larger than when Lowery became president in 1977.

"When I came here, there were four or five staff members and half of them were on CETA [a federally funded jobs program]," he said. "We've always been broke. SCLC has never had any money."

Yesterday, Lowery called for donations. Until five years ago, when he retired from preaching, SCLC presidents were paid $1 a year. Since then, Lowery's salary has been $36,000 a year.

With King at the helm, more money could flow to the organization, which claims 300 chapters and affiliates. He brings instant name recognition to an organization Lowery characterized as "a voice crying in the wilderness."

Under the elder King's leadership, the SCLC was synonymous with the civil rights movement. Its campaigns shook the country's conscience and improved the lives of millions. But the country moved on. Like other civil rights groups, the SCLC faded, becoming for many nothing more than a revered and respected name from the past.

King, a former Fulton County, Ga., commissioner, hopes to bring the SCLC back to national prominence. He offered no concrete plans but said the organization must extend its reach to those who only knew of the SCLC through history. Specifics, he said, will have to wait until he completes a review in the spring.

He did promise a different King from the one who served in local politics.

"What I mean by that is, I was in a confined arena, politics. Politics is the art of compromise," he said. "When you have an organization that you represent, there is no reason to compromise. In this arena I believe I can stand up always for issues of righteousness and justice."

But will anyone listen?

"Right now when you think about [the SCLC], you think about something that had its place back in the '60s, and '70s. Now, you really wonder about how relevant is it to what's going on," said L. A. Ford, an Atlanta resident visiting the King Center with friends.

Noting that the SCLC has run voter registration drives and gun buyback programs, he said, "They do a few things, but it doesn't register. They just aren't as prominent as other groups."

Perhaps, he said, King's name and presence will help. If that is to happen, a good place to start would be Auburn Avenue, the historic heart of black Atlanta. The SCLC is here; the King Center is here; Ebenezer is here; the Atlanta Daily World newspaper is here; and so is Tawana Johnson's new store, Tree House Records.

Asked about King and the SCLC, she drew a blank.

"I just saw his face the other day," she said and shrugged. "L.C.? the only organization I know down the street is SABO [Sweet Auburn Business Organization]."

Johnson, 26, said she felt bad that she didn't know more about King and the SCLC, but she has more pressing concerns. She wants to revive Auburn Avenue, get police patrols on the street and bums off the street. She wants restaurants instead of empty storefronts.

Whether King can bring the SCLC in touch with its neighbors, let alone the nation, remains to be seen. He knows the expectations are great.

"Unfortunately, we are always compared to those who came before us," he said. "That is going to be a challenge that I will have to deal with."

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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