Many fear recent in-fighting may be death knell for SCLC

The Southern Christian Leadership is in a very public fight with itself, a battle that some fear will kill one of the nation’s premier civil rights groups.

“The Klan couldn’t destroy the SCLC, and the CIA couldn’t destroy the SCLC,” said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, who started at the SCLC 50 years ago as a 15-year-old volunteer. "Those who killed Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t destroy the SCLC. It’s those who claim to love SCLC that are destroying it from within.

"And I’m talking about all of them.”

In the past, internal disagreements – frequently described as family fights – were usually resolved discreetly within the Atlanta-based group. But not this time.

In the past six months, two feuding factions have called a string of news conferences. They have made almost weekly trips to the courthouse to argue over who is on the board of directors and who is not; over who has control of the SCLC, and who does not.

On Monday night, the rift took a bizarre turn when one of those up front in the fight, Rev. Markel Hutchins,  welded shut a back door to the SCLC headquarters on Auburn Avenue and put heavy chains and padlocks on gates to the parking lot. The next day at a news conference, he proclaimed himself SCLC interim president, chief executive officer and chief financial officer, saying a faction of the organization’s board had named him to those posts.

By Tuesday night, both sides of the fight were suggesting they may seek criminal trespass warrants against each other.

It was simply the latest twist in a civil war within the 53-year-old civil rights organization. And those troubles have been compounded by criminal investigations by federal, state and local authorities that began earlier this year.

“It’s painful to watch an organization self-destruct,” said Brooks, who has remained neutral. “It’s imploding from within. They’re doing to the organization what J. Edgar Hoover and all the others who tried to destroy it could never do.”

Civil rights leaders and academicians agree that the current fight cannot be resolved by internal negotiations and will have to be settled by a court. Fulton Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey has scheduled a day-long hearing for June 2.

“It’s just absolute chaos,” said Bob Holmes, former director of the Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy, a think tank that looks at racial issues, and professor emeritus at Clark Atlanta University. “I find it inconceivable that they can repair the damage. I think they have reached the point whereby they are not going to be relevant in the future.”

The dispute began last summer when a former SCLC board member raised questions about spending. A subsequent internal review found expenditures totaling $569,000 that were approved by or paid to chairman Raleigh Trammell of Dayton, Ohio, and treasurer Spiver Gordon of Eutaw, Ala. Some board members said the expenditures were never approved by directors. Others said the funds were already budgeted.

Last fall, Trammell and Gordon initially said they would take leaves of absences until an internal review was completed. When the pair still hadn't stepped aside by December, other board members voted to oust them. SCLC supporters of Trammell and Gordon responded by filing a lawsuit in Fulton Superior Court to get them reinstated.

Within a few weeks, the allegations of spending improprieties became the focus of criminal investigations by the Fulton County District Attorney's Office in Atlanta, the attorney general in Alabama and the FBI in Ohio, where federal agents raided Trammell’s home and office earlier this year.

“There would be no investigation by federal and local authorities if the people who engineered this had not put out false and misleading information to the authorities,” Rev. Randy Johnson, a Trammell supporter, said. “There will be no indictments. There certainly will be no convictions.”

Aside from the criminal probe, both sides have continued to take their complaints to court and the press. Each insists they are the true board of directors, which has led to dueling board meetings, and votes to remove members of the opposing side. Accusations, often personal in nature, have been traded. The anti-Trammell group has referenced his and Gordon’s decades-old convictions for frauds (Trammell in 1978; Gordony in 1999). The pro-Trammell group has described their opponents as “dissidents” and “renegades.” Some of the actions have been labeled as “hate crimes” committed by "thugs."

Hutchins, at a Tuesday press conference, said he had been appointed by the pro-Trammell group to take the reins on an interim basis. Almost on cue, the opposing faction called a a media event of their own to denounce the legality of Hutchins' actions.

The months of turmoil have resulted in a near-paralysis of the organization King and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy created in 1957 with a philosophy of peaceful protests. Originally called the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, the group's first focus was on ending segregation. It's attention eventually shifted to voting rights and less visible forms of racism. But virtually all the legal barriers to racial equality have long been swept away, and some say the group has struggled to remain relevant.  The SCLC has been fighting a slow drift into obscurity that befell other once-major civil rights groups, such as the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE] and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC], both of which eventually disbanded.

But it's been years since the organization was at the forefront of high-profile social issues.

“There was no real excuse for us, the SCLC, to be so truly inactive over these years” said C.T. Vivian, who was neutral in the dispute until this week when he stood with board members at a news conference criticizing the other side of the dispute. “I think it would be an agreement that the SCLC has not done things it might have done.”

SCLC leaders insist the most recent fight has not affected membership. Rev. Bernard LaFayette, a member of the anti-Trammell board, said the number of members has held steady at 10,000 over in the past five years. SCLC's 2007 tax returns shows $889,404 in gifts and grants. The 2008 return, the most recent one filed, shows gifts total almost $1.2 million.

The slide from relevancy began a long time ago, said LaFayette, who was in his early 20s and attending the American Baptist Theological Seminary when he joined the civil rights movement in 1960.

"Those of us who were involved in the movement and struggle ... thought the job was complete once the laws were changed and they made segregation and discrimination illegal. We left it up to the government and we went about doing our own thing," said LaFayette, now 69.

“I never dreamed I would ever be involved in something like this.”

All the while, several of those whose names were synonymous with the SCLC in its early days seem to want no part of the fight. The AJC left repeated messages for ex-Atlanta Mayor Andy Young, Dr. Joseph Lowery, Congressman John Lewis, and Juanita Abernathy, the widow of co-founder Ralph David Abernathy. None responded.

Two of King's children, former SCLC president Martin Luther King III and current president-elect Rev. Bernice King, also have remained silent. Bernice King plans to stay out of the dispute until the lawsuit is resolved and she takes over as SCLC president this summer, LaFayette said.

“The leadership is going to have to be settled before we can go forward,” said Johnson of the pro-Trammell group. “We’re still planning on Bernice King to be the president. The question is what board will she serve with?”

Even if that question is answered, CAU's Holmes says, it may not be enough.

"They will never recover," he said. "They’ve lost credibility."

Others are optimistic.

"I do ... think what is happening now is for good of the SCLC," said Vivian, who at 85 has been involved with the SCLC since its inception.

"In many ways, the SCLC will have to start all over again and it's in a climate that is much different than what it was. Going to court sometimes is very necessary is some situations. ... Since the SCLC hasn't been doing anything for the last several years, this is not too much to bear."