Infighting Puts SCLC On Verge Of Collapse

Cameron McWhirter, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 10

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth on Wednesday announced his resignation as president of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference in what could be a fatal blow to the once-venerable civil rights organization.

“For years, deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten away at the core of this once-hallowed organization,” Shuttlesworth wrote in a two-page statement giving his reasons for quitting.

Shuttlesworth’s departure is the latest in a recent string of crises hitting the troubled civil rights organization, from the previous president’s resignation in 2003 to a chaotic convention this summer in which police had to be called to keep peace.

In an interview from his home in Cincinnati, Shuttlesworth said internal power struggles by the SCLC leaders have brought the 47-year-old organization to “the low point in its history.”

He expressed little hope for the organization’s future: “Only God can give life to the dead.”

Four decades after the SCLC led the battle to end segregation, the group finds itself on the verge of collapse, plagued by vicious leadership battles, financial problems and dropping membership rolls. The once-proud organization, co-founded and first headed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., now appears to be struggling to exist.

As the board of directors meets in Atlanta starting today, it is unclear who—if anyone—will lead the crippled organization. Last week, the board suspended 82-year-old Shuttlesworth and longtime SCLC Chairman Claud Young. The board did not give a reason for the suspensions, but they followed Shuttlesworth’s attempt to fire a longtime SCLC official. Young’s relationship with the group remains tenuous. The Detroit doctor could not be reached for comment.

For months, board members have expressed concern about the SCLC’s future.

“The organization now is in the decline stage . . . so there is a lot of turmoil around our structures and organization,” said Bernard LaFayette Jr., an SCLC board member and director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island. “You’ve got to have some new blood. It’s either going to get a new thrust and a new direction, or it’s going to continue to decline to its demise.”

In its heyday, the SCLC proved to be one of the most effective political organizations in modern American history. It put Atlanta on the map as a rallying point for those fighting for racial equality. It led marches in Selma, Ala., Albany and elsewhere. It helped organize the March on Washington, where King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. The SCLC was instrumental in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which ended institutional segregation and reshaped Southern politics forever.

Headquartered on Atlanta’s east side near the King Historic District, the SCLC has clung to the image of itself as the moral compass for the nation. A logo on its Web site announces: “Redeeming the Soul of America since 1957.”

However, Shuttlesworth described the group’s inner workings as anything but redeeming.

“You can’t practice nonviolence outside the board, and not practice it within the board,” he said.

He said the inside squabbles have made the organization ineffective.

“We have talked about hundreds of things but have done nothing,” he said.

And the group’s problems go far deeper than a dust-up among head honchos.

Once supported by tens of thousands of members, the SCLC now has fewer than 3,000, said Sherri Chance, the former SCLC director of chapters and affiliates. Many do not pay annual dues, according to internal reports. Of the 58 chapters recognized by the national SCLC today, only 10 provided membership information and paid dues to the national organization, according to an SCLC internal report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Chapters are supposed to be the workhorses of the organization—recruiting new members, raising money and helping to set policies based on grass-roots concerns. Decades ago, they did.

This year, however, the SCLC staff tried to figure out which chapters met requirements for certification. Most did not.

The chapter list in the SCLC’s recent convention program and the list printed in the SCLC National Magazine don’t match.

The report showed that the SCLC received about $18,000 in membership dues from March 2003 to April 2004. Using the base annual membership fee of $25, that would mean fewer than 730 members paid full dues. Students and seniors can get discounted memberships, so the number of paying members could be slightly higher. Officials refused to disclose the number of paying members.

Vice Chairman Raleigh Trammell, who now heads the SCLC board in Young’s absence, acknowledged the SCLC’s problems in one interview, then stopped talking to the Journal-Constitution. He could not be reached after Shuttlesworth announced his resignation.

“All civil rights organizations—the SCLC is no different—are concerned about finances and dropping membership,” he said.

Angry battles

In January 1957, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. met in Atlanta with ministers from across the South to unify the civil rights movement. By 1965, the SCLC had almost 100 affiliates and chapters across the South, and tens of thousands of members.

After King’s assassination in 1968, however, the SCLC faltered as King’s followers fought among themselves about the organization’s direction. The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy Sr., the Rev. Joseph Lowery and then Martin Luther King III were presidents of the organization in succession. All saw public support for the SCLC shrink.

After Young and Trammell took their posts in the 1990s, they became the most powerful men in the SCLC, and they flexed that power often.

Last November, then-SCLC President Martin Luther King III quit after repeated run-ins with Young and Trammell.

Young engineered the appointment of Shuttlesworth, a pastor and longtime civil rights activist, as interim president.

Early this year, the SCLC board, led by Young and Trammell, sued Lowery, contending he had set up a sweetheart deal to lease space from the SCLC for his wife’s nonprofit for $1 a year. Lowery denies any wrongdoing and argues he had full approval of the board.

The board promised election of a new president this summer at the SCLC convention in Florida. At the convention, however, police had to be called to keep the peace as factions fought bitterly during the voting process. Young and Trammell backed Young’s friend in Detroit, TV Judge Greg Mathis, to be the new president. Mathis, however, pulled out after a shouting match with supporters of another candidate, Ralph David Abernathy III.

Led by Young and Trammell, the delegates chose none of the announced candidates. Instead, they elected Shuttlesworth to be president for a one-year term, even though he wasn’t running.

Shortly after the convention, Shuttlesworth, with the board’s approval, fired two high-ranking SCLC staffers, one of them Chance, the chapter and affiliates director. Shuttlesworth accused the two of conspiring to take over the organization.

Then in October, Shuttlesworth fired another longtime staffer, the Rev. E. Randel T. Osburn. Shuttlesworth claimed Osburn had run up SCLC debts. In a rare move, the board overruled Shuttlesworth and then suspended him and Young.

Shuttlesworth, one of the SCLC’s first organizers, said he had been thinking about quitting for months. He described angry battles with board members, particularly Trammell, who, he said, “cussed me out on the phone worse than a dog.” Many of the battles were about the organization’s deepening financial troubles, he said.

From 1998 to 2002, the value of the organization’s assets dropped by nearly one-third, from more than $380,000 to less than $265,000, according to SCLC filings with the Internal Revenue Service. Direct public support—donations from corporations and others to the organization—also dropped by about one-third.

Little of the organization’s dwindling budget is being spent on the programs to which the SCLC is supposedly devoted: voter registration, youth employment and civil rights.

The SCLC reported revenue of about $600,000 to the IRS in fiscal year 2002. Only one-fourth went for chapters, affiliates and social programs; at least that much went to put on an annual convention. More than $225,000—more than one-third of revenue—went to salaries, employee benefits and payroll taxes. The SCLC has about 10 people on its national staff—including the custodian. Young, Trammell, Shuttlesworth and other board members did not receive salaries.

In addition to declining assets and donations, the national organization owes thousands of dollars in corporate and business taxes—more than $34,000 to the IRS and more than $9,000 to the Georgia Department of Revenue, according to an SCLC report. The IRS has agreed to forgive more than $69,000 in penalties and fines against the SCLC.

The IRS determined that the organization owed back taxes after federal officials stripped the group’s glossy magazine of its nonprofit status. Corporate advertisements in the magazine represent the SCLC’s largest source of revenue. And most of that money goes back to pay for the operation of the magazine, run by two businessmen in California. The magazine generated more than $11.1 million between 1998 and 2002, but less than 2 percent of that went back to the SCLC. The balance went to production costs, records show.

The magazine’s editors say their publication has a readership of 400,000. The magazine charges as much as $8,950 for a full-page color ad.

Even so, Assistant Publisher Mark Madson declined to say how many copies are printed and distributed. Many of the articles, gleaned from news wires and a handful of freelancers, are about civil rights and political issues. The publishers state on their Web site that they mail copies of the magazine to SCLC members, some corporations and black colleges.

Trammell would not discuss the finances at the magazine but would only say: “There is a lot of work that needs to be done there.” He described the magazine as “one of the sole financial supporters of the national office.”

Earlier this year, the SCLC fired its old accountants and hired a new company to review its financial records.

Chapter woes

Finances are no better at many SCLC chapters across the country. The chapters headed by Young and Trammell are in bad shape. Young, 77, a doctor who is the physician to singer Aretha Franklin, heads a nonprofit chapter and SCLC “health center” that shares patients with his medical practice in a poor section of Detroit. As of late this summer, the for-profit practice owed almost $18,000 in back taxes, city and county records show.

The Michigan SCLC owns two buildings in Detroit; both properties are tax-exempt. One is an empty office building. The other is a four-story “SCLC Family Health Center” northwest of the Motor City’s downtown. This building is supposed to be the hub of the SCLC’s activities in Detroit and Michigan. As of late summer, signs on the front of the building promised a laboratory, dentists, attorneys, a pharmacy and other medical services. A large banner promoted an SCLC “Stop the Killing” anti-violence campaign in Detroit. The banner listed a special hotline passers-by could call for more information.

However, the building had no laboratory, no dentists and no attorneys. The pharmacy was shuttered. Three of the four floors were vacant. The “Stop the Killing” hotline listed on the banner was disconnected.

Trammell’s chapter in Dayton, Ohio, is run out of the back of a soul food takeout place, also operated by Trammell. Trammell, 67, told the Journal-Constitution that the kitchen, in a tax-exempt building owned by Trammell’s church, cooks food for the homeless as well as for regular customers.

For 2001, 2002 and 2003, the Dayton SCLC paid more than $500,000 in compensation for officers and salaries for employees, according to its filings with the IRS. Trammell insisted, however, that his nonprofit chapter has no employees—only two consultants hired to work on HIV education. Trammell said the filings, which he said were filled out by someone else, were wrong.

“There is some kind of error there, because we do not have that kind of money,” said Trammell, who went to prison in the 1970s for cheating a county welfare department in Ohio. “I need to find out what’s happening here.”

The SCLC—now leaderless—is in crisis. Some experts think the problems may destroy the organization.

David Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” said the SCLC raised most of its money in the 1960s from direct contributions from the public. Over time, the SCLC shifted to creating the magazine and lining up corporate sponsors. Many companies gave donations to run advertisements in the magazine or to have sponsorships at annual conventions. Few followed what the SCLC was doing with the money, Garrow said.

Garrow said Young, Trammell and the SCLC leadership should seriously consider closing down the organization instead of continuing “as a long-term embarrassment to what you once were.”

“This is the death knell trajectory of an organization that once did do great things and did transform the country, but now has no real reason to continue to exist,” Garrow said.

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