- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

ROANOKE A white member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is accusing the civil rights organization of racism after board members withdrew their recommendation that he lead the Virginia chapter.
Jack Mills, 70, who wants to become the SCLC's first white state president, said the historically black organization turned on him after some members said they couldn't stomach the notion that he would be their leader.
"This is interesting," Mr. Mills said. "I've learned that black bigots can be as bad as white bigots."
The Rev. William Avon Keen, who was appointed the SCLC's interim president, said the dustup with Mr. Mills has nothing to do with reverse discrimination. Mr. Keen said the board withdrew its support after Mr. Mills prematurely tried to take control and taunted former President Curtis Harris in a letter, telling him to "back off."
"There's just some things that this organization expects as far as your character," Mr. Keen said.
Mr. Mills, a former stuntman and sky diver, received the Virginia board's recommendation Jan. 12, edging Mr. Keen by two votes.
The board planned to forward its recommendation to the chapter convention in May, where delegates will elect the next president. But Mr. Mills immediately sought to take control, calling a news conference to announce his election.
Members also were shocked when Mr. Mills sent Mr. Harris a letter calling himself a "prophet to be an inspiration for poor people."
Mr. Mills urged Mr. Harris to retire, finishing his rambling letter with a quote from Muhammad Ali: "Know this I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee."
"I thought he had lost his mind," said Milton A. Reid, who founded the Virginia chapter in 1961. "And I may not be too far wrong."
Mr. Reid wrote Mr. Mills an angry letter in response, saying Mr. Mills' letter sounded "like a threat from the 'Klan.'"
"I will strongly oppose your leadership to the presidency," Mr. Reid wrote. "If we have to contend with this as an alleged former Klansman, what can we expect in the future?"
Mr. Reid said other SCLC members told him that Mr. Mills had confessed he once belonged to the KKK "to show how far he's come."
Mr. Mills said his uncle was a member of the KKK in the 1930s, but he has had no personal involvement with the group or recent contact with his uncle.
"I have never been to a Klan meeting," Mr. Mills said. "I would not go to a Klan meeting unless they dragged me."
Mr. Mills, a lanky Iowa native who seldom goes in public without his cowboy hat, joined the SCLC several years ago after changing his mind about its founder, Martin Luther King.
During the 1960s, Mr. Mills said, he believed the FBI when it suspected King of communist sympathies. But Mr. Mills said his opinion changed after what he considers an illegal raid by federal authorities on the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas.
"I've been crowding [my schedule] ever since, trying to make up for lost time," Mr. Mills said.
While leading the SCLC's local chapter in Bedford County, Mr. Mills has worked to get computers for needy children. He fought to get what he considered a racist picture removed from the lobby of a state child-support agency in Lynchburg.
"He's done more to advance civil rights in this area than anyone," said the Rev. Claude Gunn, a minister from Lynchburg who joined the SCLC at Mr. Mills' urging. "He is controversial, but he'll take on issues that other people won't."
Mr. Gunn, who is black, said he believes Mr. Mills lost the SCLC's support because of his skin color.
"I went to this breakfast honoring Dr. King in January, and people were talking about how the board had voted for Jack. Someone said, 'Who is Jack Mills?' and when Jack stood up and he's the only white guy there you could tell things had changed."
The SCLC, an aging organization led by some of the same activists who helped desegregate Virginia schools 40 years ago, rarely has needed to settle power disputes between competing factions.
The chapter has had only three presidents in the past, and they have never had major opposition, said Mr. Harris, 76, who also serves as the SCLC's national vice president. This year, however, Mr. Keen, Mr. Mills and a few others vied for the board's recommendation.
Mr. Mills, who maintains that he is now the Virginia SCLC president, said he may go to court to resolve the issue. Mr. Mills also plans to attend the annual convention in Danville, where he still may be elected president.
The SCLC has never had a white president to lead any of its state chapters or the national organization.
Mr. Keen said he also will run for president at the May convention.

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