Civil rights organization that has become a partisan leftist activist group
Maintains extensive ties to Democratic Party
Mired by internal feuding and steeped in financial difficulties
Founded in 1957 by Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was instrumental to the success of the 1960s civil rights movement. Activist campaigns engineered by SCLC laid the groundwork for such legislation as the1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In more recent times, however, the organization has turned away from King's vision and embraced racial preferences. In the years since King's death, SCLC has evolved into an organ of the political Left -- joining other radical groups engaged in anti-war activism and leveraging its remaining influence to rally support for leftist Democratic candidates. The organization's in-house publication, SCLC Magazine, has been published five times annually since 1971, claims a readership of 400,000, and promotes SCLC views and agendas.
SCLC has embraced the cause of Leonard Peltier, who is serving a life sentence in prison for the 1975 murders of two FBI officers. Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the organization's founder and himself a former SCLC President, has long advocated Peltier's release.
In March 2004, SCLC's interim President, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, came to the defense of Haitian dictator Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In alliance with the Congressional Black Caucus, SCLC denounced the overthrow of the Haitian regime (which had a long record of human rights abuses) and demanded an investigation into America's role in Aristide's ouster.
Long contemptuous of the Bush administration, in August 2003 SCLC issued a press release declaring its intention to take a "stand against increased U.S. militarism, racism, class warfare, the destruction of the environment and a so-called 'War on Terrorism' that justifies the arrests of innocent people and instills fear in all Americans."
When President Bush visited Martin Luther King, Jr.'s grave in January 2004, laying a wreath in honor of the late civil rights leader, Shuttlesworth denounced Bush's visit as a cynical political gambit by a President whose "slippery politics" had "consistently contradicted the philosophy and principles" of Dr. King.
In the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, SCLC, paying no heed to its founder's counsel against trying to "influence" voters "to vote for any particular party," rallied support for the Democratic candidate John Kerry. Alleging that African Americans had been disenfranchised en masse during the 2000 election, SCLC unveiled a get-out-the vote drive in Florida, under the banner of a "Truth and Justice Campaign." SCLC also took its campaign to college campuses and even prisons, sponsoring a "Democracy Behind Bars" initiative to register jailed blacks who were eligible to vote.
Just days after President Bush's November 2004 reelection, SCLC underwent a public-relations crisis. Reverend Shuttlesworth resigned his post as interim President, stating that "[f]or years, deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten away at the core of this once-hallowed organization." He accused SCLC leadership—specifically Vice Chairman Raleigh Trammell—of financial mismanagement and personal impropriety. Those charges provoked an indignant and invective-laden inter-office memo from Trammel: "If I decide to curse you out nigga, I will. … [As] for you, you are still a bastard."
Long riven by internal disputes such as this, SCLC is now mired in debt. One SCLC report reveals that the organization owes $34,000 to the IRS and more than $9,000 to the Georgia Department of Revenue, and that the IRS has in the past consented to forgive more than $69,000 in penalties and fines against SCLC.
In recent years, SCLC membership has dwindled from tens of thousands to roughly 3,000 nationwide; in parallel, many of the organization's 58 affiliated chapters no longer offer financial assistance to the national association. Although SCLC officials have consistently declined to disclose the organization's number of dues-paying members, some reports indicate that between March 2003 and April 2004 SCLC received only about $18,000 in membership dues.
According to SCLC filings with the Internal Revenue Service, between 2002 and 2004 the organization received just ten grants ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 apiece. The benefactors included the Fannie Mae Foundation, the Bank of America Foundation, the Ewing Kauffman Foundation, the Dayton Foundation, and Columbus Foundation and Affiliated Organizations.
On November 13, 2004, Charles Steele, Jr., a former three-term Democratic Alabama state senator, became the newest SCLC President.
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