Wendell Griffen was just getting out of high school in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr., was killed.
Bernice King, Rev. King’s youngest daughter, was five years old.
Now, 41 years later, both are trying to fulfill what each says is a calling — leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization King founded.
“It is a destiny call,” said Bernice King. “It is part of my father and mother’s legacy and a continuation of the legacy he started in the 50’s and 60’s through this organization. I believe that the hand of God is leading me.”
Griffen, a former judge in Arkansas, said everything he has accomplished has been through the efforts of men like King.
“I have been blessed throughout my life, because of the work the people have done in the civil rights community,” Griffen said. “This is my opportunity to pay them back by contributing my experiences and legal training to some of the most important work that has ever been done.”
On Thursday, the 40-member SCLC board will meet here in Atlanta to choose their next president. The new leader will succeed the Rev. Byron Clay, who has been interim president since Charles Steele resigned earlier this year.
“What we need now is a burst of energy,” said Bernard LaFayette Jr., an SCLC board member. “Someone who can get national attention and national appeal. Someone who could spur and rebuild the chapters.”
Griffen, 57, is a former Arkansas judge who likes to joke that he was “retired by the people,” after his recent re-election bid failed. He would be the first lawyer and judge to lead the SCLC.
Bernice King, 46, is a motivational speaker, author and minister at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia. She received her bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and her master’s of divinity and law degree from Emory University. She would be the first woman to lead the SCLC.
Following her father and brother, Martin Luther King III, she would also be the third member of her family to run the organization.
“Of course the King name has its cachet,” said Atlanta historian Ralph Luker. “And the SCLC has a tradition of trying to cash in on that.”
While critics are questioning the relevancy of all civil rights groups, no organization has been under more scrutiny over the past decade than the SCLC. This year alone, members in Florida threatened to secede from SCLC. In California, a powerful branch president who backed gay marriage was nearly fired.
It has never even been clear how many members the organization has. Numbers range from 5,000 and 10,000‚ with the caveat being that those figures include members from chapters as well as affiliated churches and organizations. So only a small percentage of the members SCLC claims actually pay dues for an organization that runs on a $1.8 million annual budget. SCLC raises money through donations, fund-raisers, corporate sponsors and grants.
It is unclear how much the new president will earn. Steele was paid $63,315 in salary and $28,794 in expenses in 2006.
“We have been focused on survival,” said LaFayette, a distinguished senior scholar in residence at Emory University. “But the SCLC has done well. For the first time, we own our own building, so we have some staying power.”
But not everyone agrees. Luker said the SCLC blew an opportunity to reinvent itself as recently as 2007, when they opened a new, $3.3 million headquarters on Auburn Avenue.
“I am afraid it is still difficult to take it seriously as an important organization,” Luker said. “It has been a long time since the SCLC has had a substantial and sustained record of accomplishment as a civil rights organization. When they opened their new headquarters, it seemed to suggest that there was something substantial going on. But I don’t know that building that headquarters did anything for them.”
Whoever is elected SCLC president will be the seventh permanent leader, following King, Ralph David Abernathy and Joseph E. Lowery, who led the group from its inception in 1957 until 1997.
But Lowery’s retirement after 20 years ushered in SCLC’s darkest periods, where the power of the board grew, while the role of the president seemed to diminish. King III was thought to be the future of SCLC when he was elected president in 1997. But by the time he quit in 2004, he was battle-scarred by a board that tried to fire him several times. Another president, Fred Shuttlesworth, famously said the SCLC was dead, after he grew tired of fighting with the board and quit.
“Since Dr. Lowery left, it has not been balanced,” LaFayette admits. “We need to have much more balance between the executive officer and the board.”
Bernice King has been in the spotlight practically all of her life. She has long been known as the most vocal of the King children and often mixes with the social elite. She attended the inauguration of President Barack Obama and was one of the coveted speakers at the memorial service for Michael Jackson.
“The election of Bernice would break the tradition of male leadership,” said Luker, who co-edited the first two volumes of “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.” “She certainly has a name that draws a certain kind of attention.”
King is president of First Kingdom Management, a for-profit motivational speaking business. She and King III recently settled a lawsuit against their brother, Dexter King, over control of their family-run intellectual property business.
“I want to restore the voice of consciousness to society that SCLC once provided that stands on Christian principles; reconnect young people, women, and churches to the movement of social change based in biblical principles; and re-engage people in the work of nonviolent activism in their communities,” King said.
A native of tiny Delight, Ark., Griffen was the first person in his family to go to college. When he joined Wright, Lindsay & Jennings in 1979, he became the first black attorney in the state to work for a major law firm. Under then-Governor Bill Clinton, he ran the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission for two years. An ordained minister, Griffen joined the Court of Appeals in 1996.
Toward the end of his stint on the bench, Griffen was labeled “intemperate” because of his penchant for speaking out. A University of Arkansas graduate, he was a vocal supporter of its former basketball coach Nolan Richardson, who sued the school for racial discrimination after being fired.
“That wasn’t a very popular position here in Arkansas. So I became very unpopular,” Griffen said. “And I was also very outspoken about Katrina and how people were being treated. That drew some unfavorable press and complaints.”
Griffen lost his bid for re-election in 2008, but said his advocacy will serve the SCLC well.
“It has to be a plus. After all, the SCLC has a wonderful reputation for social justice advocacy,” Griffen said. “Rosa Parks, Montgomery, Dr. King’s advocacy, Vietnam, voting rights, fair housing. These are examples of how the SCLC, in the name of fairness, has been active in sounding a clarion call and speaking to the conscience of the nation and the world.”
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