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Ernie Suggs, Atlanta Journal Constitution: SCLC seeks stable new leadership

SCLC seeks stable new leadership 
by Ernie Suggs, August 7, 2011

Since the sudden death of their leader, officials with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have vowed to carry on the late Rev. Howard Creecy Jr.’s vision and continue to push the beleaguered civil rights organization forward.

And with their national convention upcoming, the SCLC is planning to deal with its challenges — one of which is stable leadership.

Last Monday, in what has almost become routine, SCLC leaders stood before a throng of reporters to proclaim the SCLC’s vitality and to build a case for relevance for the group put on the map by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But with Creecy’s death [at age 57 —rk] July 28 — the first SCLC president to die in office since King in 1968 — the organization is at a crossroads.

“I would hope that [the SCLC] would restructure and complete the dream of King and [Ralph David] Abernathy, and do the work that it was intended to do,” said Ray Fauntroy, a former SCLC chapter president in Miami. “There is a vacuum left with the absence of the original intent of SCLC. There are so many things that need to be addressed with black people.”

During the week, the SCLC offices on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue were busier than usual — at once planning a funeral, getting ready for a convention and pushing forth Creecy’s agenda.

“While we have obviously taken a blow here with the loss of our leader, the organization is still standing,” said interim president Isaac Newton Farris Jr. “We’re going to continue to follow our mission and the path he has so diligently laid before us. If there was one individual who was responsible for this organization being here today, that would be Howard Creecy. He saved this organization when others questioned whether it should even be here.”

Creecy became SCLC president in January, after King’s daughter Bernice King refused to accept the position because of the latest round of infighting, money mismanagement and lawsuits.

While other civil rights organizations like the NAACP have evolved, the SCLC — largely responsible for the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act — has remained stagnant with no clear direction, some activists have complained.

A lack of steady leadership has been a problem of late. During the first 47 years of the organization, the SCLC had four leaders: King, Abernathy, Joseph E. Lowery and Martin Luther King III. Including Creecy, there have been four in the past seven years.

“Once Dr. King was murdered, it became very difficult for us,” said Fauntroy, brother of former congressional delegate Walter E. Fauntroy, who represented Washington, D.C. “We kind of lost our way. Some fought long and hard to keep it together. But as you see, we have had some rough times. We must have an SCLC and it must be doing the work; that is the job they left us with.”

That job might be left in the hands of Creecy’s hand-picked aides, a cadre of young minds, reversing recent trends. Marian Parker was brought in as executive director and legal counsel. Damien Conners, with degrees from Emory and Princeton universities, came in to run programming.

“When we first met, he said he wanted me to do something that was relevant and threw the ball to me,” said Conners, 26. “We have a bunch of 25- to 33-year-olds working in our office. He put the burden on us, and that is what I have been doing from day one.”

Conners said Creecy’s priorities, which he now has to carry out, were education, voting rights and HIV/AIDS awareness. The Better Education campaign will kick off in September.

“We are constrained financially, but the charge to us has been to make sure the organization stays afloat, alive and relevant,” Conners said. “I think civil rights organizations are always relevant because we always have issues. Nobody asks if other ethnic organizations are relevant. As long as we have disparities, we will be relevant to hold up the banner for peace, justice and equality.”

While still grieving Creecy, the SCLC is moving quickly to replace him at its convention Aug. 14-15 in Atlanta.

Farris, a nephew of King and a former president of the King Center, declined to say whether he would seek the office permanently.

“I have not had a chance to talk to all of the board,” Farris said. “Suffice it to say we will elect a president.”

Conners, still sweating from his daily walk to SCLC from the Five Points MARTA station, said he has not thought about becoming SCLC’s youngest-ever president.

“I am not interested in titles,” Conners said. “I am more about getting the work done.”

——————–

SCLC leadership through the years

1957-68: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the founders of SCLC and was the natural pick for its first president. He served until he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

1968-77: Ralph David Abernathy, who had been SCLC’s vice president and King’s right-hand man, assumed control after King’s death. He resigned in 1977 to run for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District seat. He lost to former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair John Lewis.

1977-97: Joseph E. Lowery would serve the longest tenure as SCLC president and have the most successful career afterward. He spoke at President Barack Obama’s inauguration and was given the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

1997-2004Martin Luther King III seemed like a natural heir to take over SCLC. But much of his tenure was spent fighting with the board for power. He survived a nasty coup attempt but resigned in 2004, when the organization’s power shifted from the president to the board.

2004: Civil rights legend Fred Shuttlesworth was brought in to restore the organization, but quit after too many squabbles with the board. In a parting shot, he said SCLC was dead and “only God can give life to the dead.”

2004-09: Charles K. Steele came from Alabama with the mission of expanding SCLC’s reach internationally. He is best remembered for raising money to finance a new headquarters on Auburn Avenue.

2009-11: The Rev. Byron Clay, who in 1973 was elected to the SCLC board at age 15, served for nearly two years as an interim president while the organization dealt with legal matters and crippling infighting. Clay was supposed to be a placeholder for Bernice King, who was elected president in October 2009. But King would not assume the office because she didn’t want to be a board “figurehead.”

2011: Howard Creecy Jr., pastor of Olivet Church in Fayette County, was named president in January 2011. He died of a heart attack July 28 at age 57.

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