Steele returns to lead SCLC; Vivian steps down as president

Charles Steele, who raised enough cash as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s president to build its 3.5 million headquarters, has returned to the organization for a second stint as president.

Steele replaces civil rights icon C.T. Vivian, who is stepping down to become SCLC’s “roving ambassador” and vice president, focusing on programs. Steele had been serving as the SCLC’s CEO, and Vivian’s de-facto vice president.

The 89-year-old Vivian, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama last November, could not be reached for comment Monday.

For an organization that has often been criticized for not grooming young leaders, SCLC board chairman Bernard Lafayette said the 67-year-old Steele is not a “retread.”

“We have to look at the talent and skills people have. He raised the money to build the building we have now, so he has already proven his ability to provide financial stability to the organization,” said Lafayette, about the man being asked to again follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, Joseph Lowery and Fred Shuttlesworth. “Since he did such as good job, we decided that we would re-instate him as president, which would give him status to work with corporations and funding sources to raise funds.”

Between 2004-2009, Steele, a former state senator from Alabama, served as the SCLC’s sixth permanent president. During his tenure, he said he raised more than $20 million in cash and in-kind services for the organization. With the cash he raised, the SCLC was able to build a new headquarters on Auburn Avenue – marking the first time the 56-year-old organization owned its own building.

But since Steele left the SCLC, the finances have withered as at least five people have assumed – in reality or theory – the position of president.

Those include Bernice King, who was elected but never assumed the reigns; Howard Creecy Jr., who died six months into his tenure; and Vivian, who at age 87 when he was named, was the organization’s oldest president.

“C.T. Vivian is the guy who held on to SCLC,” Steele said. “I left SCLC, financially, in good standing. But some things fell through the cracks and debt escalated. Since I have been back, I have been able to meet payroll. I am a fundraiser. People don’t give to organizations of nonprofit status. They give to the leadership. I am a leader and thank God I can raise money.”

Steele returns to an SCLC in a climate where the very idea of civil rights organizations is being questioned. Between 1957, when King founded SCLC, and 1997, when Lowery retired after 20 years as president, the organization was at the center of every major civil rights advance.

But over the past 17 years, the SCLC’s national prominence has been diminished by internal strife and turmoil. Martin Luther King III quit in 2004 after he grew tired of the board’s attempts to fire him. His successor, Shuttlesworth, declared the SCLC was dead after he quit.

Steele’s ascension marked what many observers saw as a positive change as he raised money and worked to restore the organization’s prominence. He also tried to give SCLC a global presence by trying to establish international conflict-resolution centers in Israel and Italy. He has recently tried to gain traction in Berlin and Moscow.