The demise of the SCLC

August 09, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the venerable civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his lieutenants, may be in its death throes. Its recent convention showcased an agency that has sunk so low that one of the leading candidates for its presidency was a convicted felon.

The SCLC is beset by contentiousness, conflicting agendas and competing egos, bickering so divisive that its last president, Martin Luther King III, threw up his hands and quit in November. The recent annual gathering ended with a vote to keep its 82-year-old caretaker president, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth. But neither Mr. Shuttlesworth nor any younger successor can hope to restore the organization to its former glory.

The problem is too fundamental, too basic, to overcome: The SCLC, like the other leading civil rights organizations, is a victim of its own success. The civil rights movement was largely victorious, launching a stunning social transformation that forced the country to come much closer to the promise of full equality for all its citizens. The movement for black equality inspired the women's movement and, later, the movement for gay rights, now blossoming in its own right.

Racism is certainly not dead (if you don't believe me, I'll let you read my e-mail). But it is a shadow of its former self.

The secretary of state (Colin L. Powell) and the national security adviser (Condoleezza Rice) are black. Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, a man whose father was a black Kenyan, stands an excellent chance of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate. A black woman, Ruth J. Simmons, is president of Brown University, an Ivy League institution. The men who run Time Warner, Merrill Lynch and American Express are all black Americans.

When Dr. King, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy Jr. and the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery founded the SCLC in 1957, they could hardly have imagined such dramatic changes in such a short period of time.

But the SCLC lives in the past, fights the last war, denies the future. It cannot admit that the social landscape has changed, that black Americans no longer face fierce and unrelenting discrimination, that a politically active black middle class worries about national security, health care and job security, just like their white neighbors do.

Many black Americans have quietly cheered the recent comments of comedian Bill Cosby, who has taken to using his stature to publicly chastise blacks whose self-destructive habits keep them out of the economic and social mainstream. But the SCLC's leaders, like other civil rights activists, have been unable to admit that many of the barriers holding back black accomplishment are those we have erected ourselves: drug use, educational failure, out-of-wedlock births.

As a result, the SCLC has been in decline for years. Six years ago, it brought aboard Mr. King, whose only appeal was his family name. He lacked spine, charisma and a coherent agenda. As just one example of his failed leadership, he resisted the entreaties of Surgeon General David Satcher to address the AIDS crisis in black America, saying he would be uncomfortable discussing unprotected sex and promoting the use of condoms. (To her great credit, his mother, Coretta Scott King, has addressed the AIDS epidemic and black homophobia head-on.)

This year, several SCLC board members reached out for vibrant new leadership, backing TV judge Greg Mathis for president. His biography, which includes overcoming a record of juvenile crime, might have had appeal to at-risk youths.

But another faction, led by former Black Panther Party Chairwoman Elaine Brown, pushed Ralph David Abernathy III, son of one of the founders. Mr. Abernathy served time in prison for theft of public funds as a state legislator.

After a confrontation with Mr. Abernathy, Mr. Mathis dropped out of contention.

The radical Black Panthers once opposed everything the nonviolent SCLC stood for and wanted to destroy it. Maybe they're finally getting their chance. Not that they needed to. The SCLC was already on life support.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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