Martin Luther King III Saturday was named president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights group his father marshaled into a major force to demolish government-sanctioned racial discrimination across the South but that in recent years has had trouble defining its mission.
SCLC delegates, at a special meeting at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, unanimously ratified the selection of King, 40, to replace retiring President Rev. Joseph E. Lowery Jr. Since losing an election to the Fulton County commission in 1994, King has traveled the country speaking on humanitarian issues and affirmative action.
In remarks to several hundred people assembled at Ebenezer, King promised to work to close the economic gap that still separates blacks and whites. In 1957, for example, he said black median income was 50 percent that of whites; now it is 59 percent. “I’m calling on all people who believe in one nation under God to come together to close this great divide,” the SCLC reported him as saying.
It is King’s charge to refocus the vision of the SCLC, which under Martin Luther King Jr., battled on the front lines of the nation’s civil rights revolution. The organization mobilized thousands of people in peaceful protest, often in the face of violent resistance. “The SCLC was founded to be a different kind of kid on the block,” said Georgia state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, who worked for SCLC for 20 years. “The NAACP mostly litigated and negotiated; the Urban League was about employment and job training; but SCLC was the catalyst, an activist group that engaged in direct action and civil disobedience.”
But as the street-level protests largely ceased and civil rights groped toward new issues such as economic inclusion and criminal justice, some say the SCLC had a hard time finding a new role. “Martin King is inheriting an activist civil rights organization that is dead,” said Hosea Williams, who left the SCLC in 1979 in a clash with Lowery.
Others offered kinder assessments, saying that with a grand tradition of activism, chapters across the country and an annual budget of about $2 million, the SCLC can still be a force for social change.
“The question facing them is really the same as that facing other civil rights groups: How do you create a meaningful role for a civil rights group now that so much of black America is well represented in state and local government?” said David Garrow, a Pulitzer-prize winning biographer of King.
Since its founding in 1957, much of the SCLC’s popular image and history has been entwined with the legacy of King. After co-founding the group with Lowery and others following the Montgomery bus boycott, King served as the SCLC’s president until his assassination in 1968. King was succeeded by his top lieutenant, the late Rev. Ralph Abernathy Jr., who was unable to keep the group’s impressive leadership cadre intact.