Posted on May 20, 2010

Many Fear Recent In-Fighting May Be Death Knell for SCLC

Rhonda Cook, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 20, 2010

The Southern Christian Leadership is in a very public fight with itself, a battle that some fear will kill one of the nation’s premier civil rights groups.


In the past, internal disagreements–frequently described as family fights–were usually resolved discreetly within the Atlanta-based group. But not this time.

In the past six months, two feuding factions have called a string of news conferences. They have made almost weekly trips to the courthouse to argue over who is on the board of directors and who is not; over who has control of the SCLC, and who does not.

On Monday night, the rift took a bizarre turn when one of those up front in the fight, Rev. Markel Hutchins, welded shut a back door to the SCLC headquarters on Auburn Avenue and put heavy chains and padlocks on gates to the parking lot. The next day at a news conference, he proclaimed himself SCLC interim president, chief executive officer and chief financial officer, saying a faction of the organization’s board had named him to those posts.

By Tuesday night, both sides of the fight were suggesting they may seek criminal trespass warrants against each other.

It was simply the latest twist in a civil war within the 53-year-old civil rights organization. And those troubles have been compounded by criminal investigations by federal, state and local authorities that began earlier this year.


Civil rights leaders and academicians agree that the current fight cannot be resolved by internal negotiations and will have to be settled by a court. Fulton Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey has scheduled a day-long hearing for June 2.


The dispute began last summer when a former SCLC board member raised questions about spending. A subsequent internal review found expenditures totaling $569,000 that were approved by or paid to chairman Raleigh Trammell of Dayton, Ohio, and treasurer Spiver Gordon of Eutaw, Ala. Some board members said the expenditures were never approved by directors. Others said the funds were already budgeted.

Last fall, Trammell and Gordon initially said they would take leaves of absences until an internal review was completed. When the pair still hadn’t stepped aside by December, other board members voted to oust them. SCLC supporters of Trammell and Gordon responded by filing a lawsuit in Fulton Superior Court to get them reinstated.

Within a few weeks, the allegations of spending improprieties became the focus of criminal investigations by the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office in Atlanta, the attorney general in Alabama and the FBI in Ohio, where federal agents raided Trammell’s home and office earlier this year.


Aside from the criminal probe, both sides have continued to take their complaints to court and the press. Each insists they are the true board of directors, which has led to dueling board meetings, and votes to remove members of the opposing side. Accusations, often personal in nature, have been traded. The anti-Trammell group has referenced his and Gordon’s decades-old convictions for frauds (Trammell in 1978; Gordony in 1999). The pro-Trammell group has described their opponents as “dissidents” and “renegades.” Some of the actions have been labeled as “hate crimes” committed by “thugs.”


The months of turmoil have resulted in a near-paralysis of the organization King and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy created in 1957 with a philosophy of peaceful protests. {snip} The SCLC has been fighting a slow drift into obscurity that befell other once-major civil rights groups, such as the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE] and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC], both of which eventually disbanded.

But it’s been years since the organization was at the forefront of high-profile social issues.


SCLC leaders insist the most recent fight has not affected membership. Rev. Bernard LaFayette, a member of the anti-Trammell board, said the number of members has held steady at 10,000 over in the past five years. SCLC’s 2007 tax returns shows $889,404 in gifts and grants. The 2008 return, the most recent one filed, shows gifts total almost $1.2 million.


Two of King’s children, former SCLC president Martin Luther King III and current president-elect Rev. Bernice King, also have remained silent. Bernice King plans to stay out of the dispute until the lawsuit is resolved and she takes over as SCLC president this summer, LaFayette said.

“The leadership is going to have to be settled before we can go forward,” said Johnson of the pro-Trammell group. “We’re still planning on Bernice King to be the president. The question is what board will she serve with?”

Even if that question is answered, CAU’s Holmes says, it may not be enough.

“They will never recover,” he said. “They’ve lost credibility.”