- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2007

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will have much to celebrate today on its 50th anniversary, with millions of dollars in the bank, a new building and a new international initiative, and having bounced back from the brink of bankruptcy and irrelevance.

When Charles Steele Jr. took over the presidency of the conference three years ago, he said, it was almost “out of business,” lacking funds to finance basic operations, having almost no central staff and paying rent it couldn’t afford.

By refocusing on fiscal management and taking a nontraditional approach to expand its mission across the Atlantic, the civil rights group founded by Martin Luther King has survived.

“That is the direction Dr. King was heading before he died, to take the organization international and institutionalize the SCLC’s mission of nonviolent social protest and conflict resolution all over the world,” Mr. Steele said.

Mr. Steele, a former Tuscaloosa, Ala., City Council member and three-term state senator, said he could rely only on his “God-given talent” to bring people together and raise money when he left the group’s board of directors to take the leadership post.

His first order of business was to bring together all of the living past presidents to develop a long-term plan.

Mr. Steele said that teaching others the value of nonviolent settlement of disagreements is just the kind of work the SCLC should be doing. He called it a marketable service that many corporations, churches, government agencies and communities around the world see increasingly as a value investment.

Opening its first conflict-resolution center in April — at a school in Turin, Italy, named for King — has opened doors to new donors, Mr. Steele said.

“We have raised $7 million over the past three years,” he said, noting that the entire construction of its new $3 million, 12,500-square-foot building was completed without accruing any debt because of donations from several corporations and foundations.

Half of the building will be used by the organization and the other half will be leased for retail space, providing a steady income stream. “Where we want to go now is wherever there is a school named for Dr. King, we will adopt that school and set up one of our centers,” Mr. Steele said.

The SCLC was founded in August 1957 by King and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy as an outgrowth of the Montgomery Improvement Association, fresh off of its successful boycott of that Alabama city’s segregated bus system. The SCLC expanded to 10 states across the South and then nationwide, pushing for federal desegregation and voting rights laws.

“I would tell our brother and sister organizations that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we simply have to go back to doing what we do best,” Mr. Steele said.

The organization’s problems in recent years have been felt by other civil rights groups, said Hilary O. Shelton, D.C. bureau director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“We know they have had their economic and organizational challenges,” Mr. Shelton said. “The vision of Dr. Martin Luther King has not been fulfilled yet, and we still need that prophetic voice and its strong Southern tradition, so they really have been missed.”

Mr. Shelton said SCLC’s resurgence also is setting a good example: “It is a clear issue of one size not fitting all, and they have recognized that and found a way to move forward.”

The NAACP is going through some of its own growing pains. Its president, Bruce Gordon, resigned after 18 months on the job. Just as the group was beginning a national fundraising drive, it laid off about 70 staffers and closed seven of its regional offices.

Mr. Shelton said those in the black civil rights community — including the National Urban League, NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — need all the help they can get.

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