A former Democratic state senator from Alabama, Rev. Charles Steele, Jr. assumed the presidency of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in November of 2004, in the aftermath of a rancorous feud within the organization that had prompted the retirement of former president Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Steele, 58, had previously served as the SCLC’s executive vice president. A member of the SCLC for much of his life, Steele had been active in the Alabama affiliate of the organization; he was president of the SCLC’s Alabama branch.
As his first order of business as SCLC president, Steele moved to downplay widespread reports that the organization was mired in internal turmoil. In his December 8, 2004 keynote address, he insisted that such reports were “exaggerated.” Even so, Steele allowed that the organization had much work ahead if it was to reclaim its famed role as a champion of black rights. “We have a responsibility to unify ourselves,” Steele said.
But during his tenure with the SCLC, Steele himself has played no small part in contributing to the organization’s reputation as a partisan political group that frames its fervently leftwing agenda with the galvanizing rhetoric of civil rights. For instance, in the run-up to the 2004 Presidential election, Steele echoed the divisive proclamations of leftist stalwarts like Rev. Jesse Jackson, insisting that black voters had been intentionally disenfranchised during the 2000 election. “We’re not going to tolerate to any degree what happened in the last Presidential election,” Steele heatedly declared in one pre-election speech. “We don’t want people to think they’ll be intimidated or that their votes won’t be counted.”
By no means an isolated occurrence, this penchant for immoderate speech is a staple of Steele’s oratory. In August of 2004, for instance, Steele employed the type of hate speech that the SCLC has long condemned as part of its civil rights campaigns. Appearing at an SCLC conference in Jacksonville, Florida, Steele denounced the host location as a “racist city.” Then, taking aim at Jacksonville’s mayor, Republican John Peyton, Steele proceeded to inform the conference’s attendees: “Y’all got a mayor here that’s a redneck.” What made the mayor deserving of the slander, according to Steele, was his enactment of a program to promote small businesses in Jacksonville that made no special provisions to give racial, ethnic, or gender preferences to minorities and women. Public criticism compelled Steele to retreat from his “redneck” charge, but he would not budge from his attack on the mayor’s policy, unapologetically telling the Jacksonville Times-Union: “Conceptually, the policy I have seen is redneckish and racist.”
Notwithstanding his wont for roiling racial passions, Steele has pledged that as the SCLC’s new president he would commit the organization to the mission of conflict resolution. True to this aim, Steeled has vowed to establish a series of SCLC-affiliated conflict-resolution centers, beginning in Israel, Italy, Benin, Taiwan, and China. As a distant prospect, Steele has also suggested that the National Basketball Association (NBA) would benefit from access to such a conflict-resolution center. Following a controversial melee in Michigan that involved several NBA players, Steeled declared, “If there had been a conflict-resolution center in the NBA, you wouldn’t have had that turmoil.”
Countering criticism that the SCLC is too torn by internal feuding to credibly position itself as a force for conflict resolution, Steele has maintained that the organization’s services remain as sought-after as in its heyday under the stewardship of Martin Luther King, Jr. “The world is calling us,” Steele said, adding: “The world is infested with conflict. The world is really hungry for the philosophies and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”