Activist refuses to answer questions about alleged SCLC break-in

The Atlanta activist's marching orders were pretty specifc from the two Dayton, Ohio, men trying to keep their grip on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, according to court testimony Tuesday. Take over the SCLC headquarters building “by any means necessary.”

The Rev. Markel Hutchins, by then claiming he was interim SCLC president, allegedly moved swiftly. On the witness stand Tuesday, he was asked if he cut off the power to the Auburn Avenue building, welded the back door shut and padlocked the gates in one of the more dramatic steps in the months-long fight for control of the once-premier civil rights group.

When asked Tuesday about that night several days following his May 11 appointment, Hutchins said, “I am forced and have very little choice, at this moment, to invoke my Fifth Amendment rights.”

He also gave that answer to questions about bringing a locksmith to the offices after 9 p.m. on May 17. And that was his answer to questions about cutting the power and about disabling the alarm system at the two-story headquarters.

Hutchins did respond, however, when attorney Charles Mathis asked if he took anything from the SCLC office.

“I have never, ever removed any item at any time from the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” Hutchins said.

Tuesday was the fourth day Fulton Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey had heard testimony in the legal struggle over who is -- and who is not -- in key leadership positions and on the board of directors for the SCLC.

The Rev. Bernice King, the youngest child of SCLC co-founder the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has not assumed her elected role as president of the group. She wants to wait until the turmoil has been resolved, according to testimony last week.

This now-public fight began last year when questions were raised about spending of SCLC funds by then-chairman Raleigh Trammell of Dayton and then-treasurer Spiver Gordon of Eutaw, Ala.

The suit was brought by Sylvia Tucker, who was chosen chair by one side; Randall Gaines, who is treasurer of that group; and the Rev. Bernard LaFayette.

The pro-Trammell-Gordon defendants are Wilbert Shanklin, the SCLC compliance officer; the Rev. Curtis Harris, who was interim president; the Rev. Randy Johnson; and Hutchins.

Some SCLC members contend Trammell and Gordon wrote checks to themselves and their special projects totaling at least $569,000. The FBI, the Alabama attorney general and the Fulton County district attorney are all conducting criminal investigations into the allegations.

Two groups -- the one backing Trammell and Gordon, and the other opposing them -- have each claimed to control the board of directors. Both sides have removed and added board members. Both sides have made several filings in court and held many news conferences stating their claims and criticizing the others.

The case before Dempsey asks the judge to decide who is in charge.

Bernice Frazier, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Foundation, which funds SCLC Inc., testified Wednesday that Hutchins was asked to serve as interim president until King takes office. Hutchins' appointment was made during a telephone meeting that included Trammell and Shanklin.

“They instructed Mr. Hutchins to take control of the building by any means necessary,” said Frazier, who was part of that telephone conversation that started at 11 p.m. on May 11 and ended an hour and 46 minutes later.

But Hutchins disagreed with that characterization when he was called to testify.

He insisted that “the words ‘by any means necessary' have not been” said to him and he blamed the media, including the AJC, for grossly exaggerating accounts of that evening and his news conference the following day.

Hutchins steadfastly insisted he was the legitimate president and said he took steps to assert that authority by opening a bank account in the name of Southern Christian Leadership Conference Inc. “for the operating of the business upon appointment of myself.” He said the only transaction was a deposit using his own money so the account could be opened.

The SCLC already had accounts at two other banks, but those funds have been restricted because of the dispute over who is authorized to write checks.

Hutchins testified that at Chase Bank he was able to open an account without any documents from the board of directors.

“The bank did not require any documentation because I am the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” Hutchins said.

Hutchins took questions Tuesday only from the attorney for the faction that filed the lawsuit. The attorney for the Trammell-Gordon group will question Hutchins again later when she presents their side of the issue.