In October 2009, Bernice King stood in the basement of the old Ebenezer Baptist Church and promised a bolder, younger and brighter SCLC.
She had just made history as the first woman elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and it didn’t hurt that she was the firebrand daughter of the organization’s founder, Martin Luther King Jr.
But over the past 15 months, she refused to officially take over, as she watched bitter infighting split the 54-year-old organization in two.
On Friday, she made it official that she will never assume the office, claiming she could no longer negotiate the terms of her presidency with the SCLC board who saw her as simply a “figurehead.”
“The ideas they had concerning the direction of the organization under my leadership were different than my ideas," King told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We didn’t see eye-to-eye.”
King said she will now shift her attention toward furthering the legacy of her mother, Coretta Scott King.
“I am disheartened and sad. But I am also relieved that I don’t have to go around avoiding questions anymore about when I am taking over,” King said. “I am relieved to be able to do the things that need to be done with respect to my mother’s legacy.”
Bernard LaFayette, the vice chairman of the SCLC board, said while he and his colleagues were surprised by King’s decision, they also are moving on.
“It is with respect that we accept the fact that she has decided to do something different,” Lafayette said. “We think that people should make their own decisions on how they are going to serve and fulfill the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. We give her our blessings to do what she thinks is best for her. This is not a setback.”
LaFayette said Howard Creecy will serve as interim president until a new one is elected in August.
King's announcement comes a day after former SCLC board chairman Raleigh Trammell pleaded not guilty to 51 felony counts, after being accused of stealing nearly $50,000 from the meal program for the elderly poor that he ran in Dayton.
The ending to King’s tenure that never was capped off one of the worst periods in the history of the SCLC.
After her election, King remained on the sidelines while warring factions fought in court over the control of the organization.
Trammell, along with former treasurer Spiver Gordon and local activist Markel Hutchins, tried to wrest control of the group from a faction led by Lafayette and board chair Sylvia Tucker. Both groups claimed control, going as far as holding separate boards and meetings.
But last September, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey sided with Tucker and LaFayette, booting out Trammell and Gordon, who were also under investigation for mismanaging nearly $600,000 of SCLC money.
King said it was at that point, she approached the court-recognized board about finally taking over the organization that her father co-founded in 1957. On Oct. 13, she submitted a list of recommendations about her transition to the presidency. Three months later on Jan. 6, she was given 14 days to “accept the terms of the job description” as the board described it.
“When I read it, I knew that I was not interested in leading the organization as a figurehead. You can’t run an organization where everything has to go through the board,” said King, adding that she was disappointed that the board took so long to get back with her, then issued her a tight deadline to come to terms. “I was really excited about the opportunity. But somewhere around Thanksgiving, I said that them not getting back to me speaks volumes. I will continue to pray for SCLC’s growth and resurrection and wish the organization great success in its mission.”
King’s announcement is another blow to the once-proud organization, which aside from being led by her father, has been helmed by the likes of civil rights giants Ralph David Abernathy and Rev. Joseph Lowery.
Civil Rights scholar and former Morehouse College professor Ralph Luker said when King was elected president of the struggling organization, she was expected to “renew their mission.”
“They certainly saw her election as a turning point for the organization,” Luker said. “Whether SCLC was going to be a living organization or not was a question at the time she was elected. I think this brings up again the question of whether there is a future for SCLC. There are a lot of people who think that SCLC’s time has passed.”
One of those is former Mayor Andrew Young, a former aide to King Jr. who he said it was “wonderful” that King decided not to lead the organization with all of its “baggage.”
“SCLC had a glorious run and we should celebrate and remember that. But until we find and define a mission, we should let it go,” Young said. “Lowery kept things going for a good little while, in terms of expanding employment opportunities. But since he left, it has been floundering.”
Lowery, who led SCLC for a record 20 years, said that he is “saddened” by the organization’s current state, which he described as in “turbulent waters.” But he is not ready to call for its demise yet.
“I hear the question, but I don’t hear the answer," Lowery said. "I am not prepared to make that statement, but unless they come to grips with reality and find their place in the sun soon, other forces will make a decision for them. I can only pray that they will find deliverance.”