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Civil Rights Group, SCLC, Strives To Remain Relevant


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The civil rights organization co-founded by Martin Luther King Junior meets in Sanford, Florida today for its annual convention. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference has struggled in recent years with leadership battles and declining membership. Now members want to rebrand the SCLC. Here's NPR's Kathy Lohr.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Civil rights groups held dozens of rallies in Sanford after the killing of Trayvon Martin in February, before George Zimmerman was indicted. Art Rocker with the Florida chapter of the SCLC was among those who protested.

ART ROCKER: The state attorneys office in Florida must wake up, shake up, and let's stop these lies on our youth.

LOHR: Rocker says this case points to the need for the SCLC to continue its mission, despite the troubles that have plagued it.

ROCKER: What's great about this organization is we're one of the first civil rights organization that recognized the fact that we didn't have transparency and accountability. And we went after the chairman and the folks who was involved, and just recently they was indicted there, and got over 34 years for violation.

LOHR: In fact, the Reverend Raleigh Trammell, former chair of the SCLC, was recently found guilty of dozens of charges, including grand theft involving a program that delivers meals to senior citizens. The Atlanta-based group has dealt with splinter factions that have claimed power. And it's had a series of presidents, including the son of its co-founder, Martin Luther King III, and the nephew of the civil rights icon Isaac Farris, Jr.

Farris was recently forced out of office and is one of several chapter leaders who filed suit to reclaim his position. He also says the SCLC's meeting this week is illegal and wants to prevent the group from conducting any official business there. There was no official comment on the lawsuit, but Art Rocker in Florida says the leadership struggles are not necessarily a bad thing.

ROCKER: If you are coming to the SCLC and there is a lack creditability that is learned, you will not be here long.

LOHR: Some have suggested the infighting shows that the SCLC had outlived its purpose. But newly appointed CEO, Charles Steele, who is also a former SCLC president, says it's time to restore stability to the organization.

CHARLES STEELE: When I came to SCLC in '04, it was worse than this. The lights was out. The phone was off. We hadn't met payroll. People were divided. My job is to put everybody's vision on the same page.

BERNARD LAFAYETTE: We are now past the storm in SCLC.

LOHR: The Reverend Bernard LaFayette is chair of the national SCLC board. He says there's still a purpose for the civil rights group.

LAFAYETTE: Martin Luther King wanted SCLC to be an organization with diversity, and we have to recreate that. There are young people who don't know nothing about how to struggle to be free, and we have to take the role of helping them to learn this.

LOHR: LaFayette says focusing on current issues, including the lack of jobs, state voter ID laws and advocating justice in the Trayvon Martin case will help the group reach young people and remain relevant. But some question that.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: The SCLC is still struggling for its survival.

LOHR: Andra Gillespie teaches political science at Emory University. She says the group's internal struggles make it hard to persuade donors and others to lend support.

GILLESPIE: They are going to have to convince everybody that they really have turned a corner, and that the organization itself is stable and that nobody's going to try to, you know, take over.

LOHR: The SCLC's leaders will also have to recruit a much younger base. And Gillespie says that's not easy, either.

GILLESPIE: This very well could be the SCLC's swan song. It's just a question of how long that swan song is going to be. Is it going to be 10 years? Is it going to be 20 years? Is it going to be 30 years?

LOHR: Some civil rights groups were not able to remain relevant, and they faded away. There are many questions about whether the SCLC will be able to make the transition.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.