Testimony: Bernice King has demands before assuming SCLC presidency

The once-leading civil rights organization has been split as different factions have fought in court filings and through news conferences for control. It began late last year, soon after King was elected, when questions were raised about expenditures of SCLC funds by then-chairman Raleigh Trammell and then-treasurer Spiver Gordon.

All the while, the president-elect has delayed assuming the position. Now King is set to take office in August; she was to have taken the position four months ago.

The status of King came out during testimony Wednesday before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey, who will rule on who is in charge of the SCLC -- the group that backs Trammell and Gordon or the one that has pushed them out.

Witness attorney Kathryn Weathers Belger, who has advised the Trammell-Gordon faction, testified that King, the youngest child of one of the SCLC co-founders, was not going to take a leadership role until this dispute is resolved and until certain “mandates” are met.

King, youngest daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.,  wants a contract and “certain persons on the transition team. ... She didn’t want to be a figurehead,” Belger testified.

Belger said King once became upset when the SCLC Web site included a section about her election as president.

“Elder King was disgruntled and dismayed” and thought that her likeness was on the site only to raise money for the organization.

That segment was removed from the site, according to testimony.

The fight is getting uglier as testimony portrayed the group’s leaders as acting without consulting others and making unilateral decisions and then trying to find justification in the SCLC by-laws and constitution when challenged.

The hearing, scheduled for one day, will go at least two with testimony resuming Thursday.

“Some people have said the SCLC should die,” said attorney Thelma Wyatt Moore, who represents the SCLC faction that backs Gordon, of Eutaw, Ala., and Trammell, of Dayton, Ohio, who claims to be chairman. “We are here because the SCLC needs to be resuscitated.”

The suit asking Dempsey to prohibit the other side from speaking and acting on behalf of the SCLC board 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 defendants are Wilbert Shanklin, the SCLC parliamentarian; the Rev. Curtis Harris, who was interim president; the Rev. Randy Johnson; and the Rev. Markel Hutchins, who announced several weeks ago that he, too, was president of the SCLC. The other faction says it removed Shanklin, Harris and Johnson from the board and Hutchins was never on it despite his repeated assertions.

Hutchins, an Atlanta civil rights activist, was the only person named in the suit who was not in court Wednesday.

“It would take a miracle from Jesus” to resolve this dispute outside the court, Dempsey said at the beginning of the hearing.

“Once we decide who is the duly constituted authority of this organization, the rest is going to be easy,” Dempsey said.

The issue is who is, and who is not, in charge of the SCLC -- the group that backs Trammell and Gordon, who are subjects of local, state and federal investigations, or the members who initiated the criminal reviews of their spending of SCLC funds on themselves and their personal projects.

The road to the courthouse began late last year when questions were raised about Trammell’s and Gordon’s spending. Initially, the two men agreed not to interfere with an internal review of spending, but then their backers – Shanklin, Harris and Johnson – filed suit, a case that was dismissed several months later.

In the meanwhile, both sides have voted to remove members from the board and replace them with others, staff have been locked out of the SCLC offices, and the organization’s bank accounts have been frozen. One purported new member of one of the boards, Hutchins, entered the SCLC headquarters after hours and welded shut the back door and padlocked gates.

“They have acted in a manner that has been arrogant, in a matter that is unfair,” said Charles Mathis, the attorney for the group opposing Trammell and Gordon.

Until there is a resolution, Dempsey said, the SCLC would remain in “total chaos and nobody can do anything.”

Johnson, the first to be called, testified that Gordon, had secured a $30,000 personal loan to pay for legal costs of a suit, now dismissed, that Shanklin, Harris and Johnson filed.

“I don’t remember it being authorized [by other board members],” Johnson testified. “Spiver Gordon just did it.”

“The organization didn’t authorized you to bring the lawsuit?” Mathis asked.

“No,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have a full board meeting about it.”

At the same time, SCLC staff were told to draw $25,000 from the SCLC’s line of credit to pay those same legal expenses; a little more than half has been paid to Moore.

But Johnson said the money was spent “for the benefit of the organization.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.