By Maria Saporta
A prism of the Civil Rights Movement is on display at Emory University’s Robert W. Woodruff Library — an exhibit featuring archives from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
The title of the exhibit is: “And the Struggle Continues: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Fight for Social Change.”
And while the exhibit is an historical retrospective of the Civil Rights organization, the title also applies to the SCLC itself — an entity that has been searching for its own post-Civil Rights Movement identity and leadership in this new millennium.
No one knows that struggle more than Charles Steele Jr., who currently is serving as SCLC’s president emeritus as well as its CEO. It is the second time that Steele has stepped in to lead the organization.
The first time was in 2004 when the SCLC was mired in debt of more than $1 million and owed the federal government back taxes, and there were questions about whether the organization would be able to survive.
Steele teamed up with a long-time friend — Mike Garrett, then-president of the Georgia Power Co. — who committed to chair a campaign to raise the necessary dollars to build a two-story building to house the SCLC on a vacant lot on Auburn Avenue.
(Garrett, a member of SCLC since 1991, and Steele had worked together in Alabama, and they had developed a close working relationship).
The idea was for SCLC to occupy the second floor and to lease the ground floor to retail tenants, giving the organization a steady stream of revenue to support its operations.
In August, 2007, SCLC opened its new Auburn Avenue headquarters in a debt-free building after a successful $3.3 million capital campaign.
At the time Steele said: “We almost didn’t make it; we almost went out of business. This is significant because it conveys the message that SCLC is going to be around for years to come.”
Steele stepped down as SCLC’s president in 2008 to focus on his international consulting business.
What followed was a revolving door of presidents and interim presidents (Byron Clay, Bernice King, Howard Creecy, Isaac Farris and C.T. Vivian) trying to lead an organization that seemed to have lost its way..
At the opening reception of the Emory exhibit on Friday, Feb. 22, Steele sat down for an impromptu interview to talk about the state of SCLC today.
Steele said he was approached last year by some SCLC leaders who said: “Charles, we need you back.” Steele rejoined the organization as its day-to-day CEO on July 2, 2012. Veteran civil rights leader C.T. Vivian, 88, stayed on as president of the organization although Steele was named president emeritus.
“They knew my vision,” Steele said. “That’s why I came back — to fulfill the dream that we had when I was president before — to go international.”
In fact, Steele said SCLC was only fulfilling the vision that Martin Luther King Jr. had shared hours before he died.
Bernard LaFayette, who was with King the night and morning before he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, had a conversation with the civil rights leader just five hours before he was killed.
“Bernard, now is the time to internationalize and institutionalize SCLC,” King told LaFayette on that fateful day.
But Steele has found a weaker SCLC today than the one he left in 2008.
“There’s always a problem with money,” Steele said. “That’s why I’m here for the second term. I’ll stay until the job is done.”
Steele went on to say: “I left the building debt-free. After I left, there was a lien taken out on the building,” he added. “It’s not as bad as it was back in 2004. We now have control of the situation. I’m happy to say we are meeting payroll, and we are meeting our daily obligations. In a short period of time, we will be back to where we were in 2008.”
Steele and LaFayette now are stepping up their international outreach. Steele went to Moscow in December to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, to discuss a possible partnership. And then he and LaFayette went to Paris, France to explore launching a Poor People’s Campaign in the City of Lights.
“Things have changed,” Steele said. “It is international now.”
Steele hopes SCLC’s headquarters will be debt-free soon again and that the ground floor will become an international training center.
At the Friday reception, protest was in the air with students politely carrying signs calling for the resignation of Emory President Jim Wagner. Recently, Wagner had written about the “Three-Fifths Compromise” during the 1700s when slaves were given three-fifths right of whites as a model of political compromise.
Despite the protests, SCLC leaders did not appear to have second thoughts of having donated their archives to Emory with Wagner and other university officials being warmly embraced by SCLC’s leaders.
LaFayette did praise the protesters for exercising their freedom of expression, saying that was what the movement was all about.
All of SCLC’s leaders complimented Emory for the title — “And the Struggle Continues” — recognizing that the country and the world still has a long way to go before it is free of discrimination, violence and prejudice.
Congressman John Lewis said he is often asked if the election of President Barack Obama is the fulfillment of King’s dream.
“I say, ‘No, it’s just a downpayment,’” Lewis said.
Dorothy Cotton, SCLC’s education director from 1960 to 1968, thrilled the audience with her singing and her passion — saying she was “not passing the torch to nobody.” Instead, she hopes to leave a legacy that she has made the world a better place.
Then she surprised Emory officials by saying she was donating her personal papers to the university’s archives.
Taking in all the sights and sounds Friday night, the tension between the past and the future filled the air.
Steele said it best.
“People are afraid of the future,” Steele said. “SCLC must elevate itself from the 60s to the new millennium. And that’s not an easy task.”