Five years ago, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Atlanta-based civil rights group co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was in disarray. It had just concluded a convention in Jacksonville, Fla. that was so contentious that police had to be summoned to keep the peace. Instead of choosing between the two candidates vying for president at the time, TV Judge Greg Mathis and Ralph D. Abernathy III, convention delegates picked Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth to serve as interim president.
But when Shuttlesworth fired longtime staffer Rev. E. Randel T. Osburn several months later, the SCLC board overruled Shuttlesworth and suspended him. The civil rights icon from Birmingham, Ala. quit, saying: "Only God can give life to the dead."
That’s when the SCLC board turned to Charles Steele, Jr., an Alabama undertaker, to breathe new life into the dying organization. Taking office with no money in the bank and the office lights turned out, Steele began rebuilding the organization. The group’s finances were so shaky that when Steele first accepted the job, he commuted from Tuscaloosa, Ala. and for a short period, slept in his car to save money.
But that changed quickly. The former Alabama state senator raised more than $6 million over four years, including $3.3 million to build new headquarters for SCLC on Auburn Avenue. The organization’s assets increased 10-fold under Steele. Over that same period, the former Alabama state senator increased the number of chapters from 10 to 85 and rescued SCLC from irrelevancy.
Steele recently resigned as president and CEO of SCLC, and Byron Clay, a board member from Kenner, La., was named interim president. Although Steele left office without rancor – Board Chairman Raleigh Trammell repeatedly tried to persuade Steele to rescind his resignation – SCLC finds itself at another turning point.
And the person the board selects to lead the organization may determine if SCLC will build on the progress made under Steele’s leadership or return to its near-death status.
Whomever is selected, along with the board, will face the challenge of coming up with vibrant programs to make the organization more effective. Despite being a major player in the civil rights movement, seeking justice for the Jena 6 in Louisiana, marching to urge the Justice Department under George W. Bush to be more aggressive in enforcing civil rights and preaching economic empowerment, much of Steele’s efforts were devoted to keeping the organization solvent. He also spent a considerable amount of time making SCLC an international force, establishing conflict resolution centers abroad and joining efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.
To attract a credible national figure to become SCLC’s seventh president in 52 years, the board needs to adjust how it interacts with its president/CEO. The role of directors is to establish policy and allow the president to supervise day-to-day operations. Although Steele never cited it as a factor in his decision to leave, the SCLC board is deeply involved in daily operations of SCLC. For example, the organization’s general counsel reports directly to the board chairman instead of the president as is the case under most organizational structures.
Still, the past several years have been uncommonly smooth for SCLC, largely because of the good working relationship between Chairman Trammell and President Steele. Trammell was generally supportive of Steele and Steele maintained open and regular communications with Trammell, who lives in Dayton, Ohio.
Since Joseph Lowery stepped down as president of SCLC in 1997 after a 20-year tenure, the organization has been roiled by political infighting. Martin Luther King III’s 7-year tenure ended in 2004 after frequent clashes with the board. Shuttlesworth quit abruptly in 2004 after serving several months. And when Steele was selected to succeed Shuttlesworth that same year, many were predicting a similar fate for him.
In a speech to the National Newspaper Publishers Association in Phoenix two years ago, Steele recalled: "When we got there, the lights were off. The phone was off. Dr. King’s organization couldn’t meet payroll, inherited a $100,000 debt from the convention coming out of Jacksonville, Fla. and owed the federal government. And now the federal government owes us. In the last two years, we have raised $6 million."
Trammell, in a statement announcing Steele’s departure, said, "Charles Steele’s passion for civil rights and his desire to keep the organization alive and relevant has changed not only SCLC, but the world’s view of SCLC for the better." Trammell added, "His determination and drive restored the organization back to our original relevance. Because of Charles, our membership has increased and he has given a new foundation on which we can continue to build."
Steele, who moved his family from his native Tuscaloosa, Ala. to Atlanta, said he plans to remain in Georgia and concentrate on potential business opportunities, many of them in the international arena. He also plans to serve as a consultant to SCLC while it seeks its next leader and build on his efforts to establish conflict resolution centers around the world.
In the meantime, my old buddy can be proud of what he accomplished. In addition to always criticizing "scared Negroes," he was fond of saying that when he took over, "We weren’t dead, but we were on life-support." SCLC can now breathe easier because of Charles Steele, Jr.