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Bernice King silent as SCLC faces uncertain future
SCLC President Heal
In a Saturday Oct. 18, 2008 file photo, Rev. Bernice King, talks during an interview in Atlanta. Months after the daughter of America's most revered civil rights icon was elected to lead the group he co-founded, the organization is in a tumultuous tailspin and she is keeping her silence. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA - Four months after Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter was elected president of the civil rights group he co-founded, the organization is in a tailspin and she is silent on why she hasn't taken the helm.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference has been fractured by infighting and a federal investigation. Agents recently raided the Ohio chapter's headquarters and the home of the SCLC's national chairman, who faces accusations of financial mismanagement. In Georgia, Fulton County prosecutors have also launched a formal investigation into the Atlanta-based organization's financial affairs.

Through it all, the Rev. Bernice King - who was elected SCLC president Oct. 29 - has said nothing. She has yet to take over, and the interim president she is replacing has already left.

With no one to speak on the group's behalf, observers say the long-declining SCLC is weaker than ever.

"J. Edgar Hoover is in his grave, shouting and celebrating," said Tyrone Brooks, a Georgia state representative and longtime SCLC member, invoking the name of the FBI director who kept tabs on the SCLC for years. "The organization he tried to destroy is now being destroyed by the very people who claim to love it and love the legacy of Dr. King."

Amid the turmoil, the management functions continue to limp along.

The executive board members met last week at the SCLC's Dayton, Ohio, branch office and reiterated their support for the organization's embattled chairman and treasurer.

A compliance officer and an acting administrator are managing the day-to-day operations. Three longtime SCLC board members have been appointed to sign checks for the time being.

SCLC activists still demonstrate, speak and use lawsuits to confront racism in society. However, the SCLC, once the driving force behind the peaceful disobedience of the civil rights movement, gradually gave way to other organizations and faded from the headlines in the decades since the death of its most famous founder. Those loyal to King and his vision have continued to keep the SCLC going - if only because they could not bear to lose the last symbolic tie to the civil rights patriarch.

To some observers, the youngest King would do well to keep her distance from the SCLC's current woes.

"No new president should come in with this kind of mess," said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, a friend of the King family who worked for the SCLC under its longest-serving president, the Rev. Joseph Lowery.

"It is in her best interest to lay low until some of this can get cleaned up. Then she can come in with a clean slate," said McDonald, now pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Bernice King, an ordained minister, is the second child of Martin and Coretta Scott King to take on a leadership role in SCLC. Her brother, Martin Luther King III, was president from 1998 to 2003 and remains a member of its the board of directors.

Bernice King's spokeswoman, De'Leice Drane, said King was not available for comment. Voicemails left on the phones of each King sibling this week were not returned.

Their father helped found the SCLC on Valentine's Day in 1957, and was its leader until his assassination in 1968. When Bernice King was elected SCLC president in October, she said she could not assume office before the spring because of prior engagements and commitments.

"I stand before you as a daughter of the civil rights movement calling forth the daughters and sons of the next generation of social change," King said on the day she was elected at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her father preached from 1960 until his death.

SCLC's troubles have mounted during the past year. Chairman Raleigh Trammell and Treasurer Spiver Gordon were among a handful of the group's leadership accused of financial mismanagement in June, when a former SCLC board member called for a Justice Department investigation into the alleged disappearance of more than $1.4 million.

Both have denied wrongdoing. Because of the pending lawsuit, they are not allowed to comment on the organization's situation.

The SCLC announced an internal investigation into the matter in December. Some on the group's board of directors attempted to oust Trammell and Gordon last fall, accusing them of diverting about $569,000 of SCLC funds to bank accounts they controlled to cover expenses ranging from credit card to insurance bills without board approval.

After a faction of SCLC members sought an injunction in Fulton County Superior Court, a judge reinstated both men in January.

The group had more setbacks last month. A court order Feb. 8 cut off Gordon's access to SCLC funds. On Feb. 11, the FBI raided the SCLC's Dayton office and the homes of Trammell and his daughter. The FBI did not say what it was looking for and no charges have been announced.

The Rev. Byron Clay of Louisiana is still listed as SCLC president and chief executive officer on the organization's Web site. There is no mention of King or her election on the site.

Brooks, who joined SCLC at age 15, worked alongside King's closest lieutenants and still supports the organization, said he is saddened by the recent events.

"All those who made the SCLC what it is are looking down and shedding tears," Brooks said. "The membership has turned on each other rather than to each other. All this infighting could very well destroy the organization."


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