by Kalin Thomas
Special to the NNPA from The Atlanta Voice
ATLANTA – Civic leaders and ministers joined board members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) this week to announce the appointment of Rev. Charles Steele Jr. as the civil rights organization’s new chief executive officerSteele, a former SCLC president, is being brought back in the new role to help return the organization to solid financial footing and help quiet some of the controversy and dissent that has swirled around SCLC since his departure in 2009.
“You remember when I came in 2004, I told you there are two things I can do: raise hell and raise money!” Steele said during a spirited news conference on Monday.
“I’m here to bring some resources to SCLC. As much as we love the church, SCLC is not a church, it’s a business and we must run it like a business.”
SCLC board chair Dr. Bernard Lafayette agreed, adding: “The financial crisis is over, and you’re now looking at the Dream Team!”
A former Alabama state senator, Steele is widely credited with building SCLC’s $3.3 million headquarters on Auburn Avenue, boosting membership and leading the organization back to solid financial footing during his five-year term.
Today, the headquarters he helped build is in danger of foreclosure and the organization continues to reel from several recent challenges that have threatened its longstanding image as a revered and powerful civil rights group:
• Two former SCLC board members were ousted in 2009 after being accused of mismanaging at least $569,000 of SCLC money. Although they were not convicted, the accusations split the organization, with separate factions claiming to represent the group’s board of directors.
• In 2010, the two boards held separate annual conventions in Atlanta. The group spent nearly a year in court, fighting over control of SCLC. A judge ruled in favor of a faction that sided with Martin Luther King’s youngest daughter, Rev. Bernice King, who subsequently refused to take office, citing board infighting.
• Former SCLC president Isaac Newton Farris Jr., nephew of SCLC co-founder Martin Luther King. Jr., was appointed with great fanfare early this year only to be ousted several months later due to undisclosed transgressions. Farris and a band of SCLC activists are petitioning for reinstatement and have said they may consider legal action.
• Board infighting and the controversy over money management has sapped the group’s ability to raise money, solicit community support or do historic civil rights work.
Now, as the group prepares for its annual conference in Florida, board members are looking for the sixth SCLC president in eight years. Officials say they plan to form a search committee at SCLC’s annual convention later this month.
Steele said he won’t be involved in selecting a new president, but will focus solely on making SCLC solvent. He wants to raise money to pay off debt and finance the group’s programs like voter registration, non-violence workshops, work readiness and life skills classes, GED and ACT prep classes and youth mentoring.
Along with helping SCLC rebuild, Steele said he also wants to help rebuild historic Auburn Avenue, where the organization is headquartered. “This ain’t no on the job training!” Steele said at Monday’s news conference. “You know [my record]. You know I’m about taking care of business.”
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a longtime civil rights activist said he was “rejoicing” over Steele’s announcement.
“I didn’t want him to leave after his five-year tenure as president of SCLC. So it’s great to see he’s coming back to the organization that raised us and has given so much to the world,” said Brooks, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials
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