Bernard Lafayette doesn't sound like the spokesman for a civil rights organization that's been threatening to self-destruct. He says the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Atlanta headquarters is pushing ahead with new projects and important events despite a criminal investigation into its finances. "We're in control of the office," he says. "We have supervision of the staff and we're planning our national convention here in Atlanta in August. So we're moving ahead while they're still drawing up charges."
Lafayette is talking about the very public legal battle with another faction of SCLC, 53-years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr co-founded the organization, infighting has nearly succeeded in doing what Bull Connor, George Wallace and the Ku Klux Klan could not.
The SCLC's board of directors voted to remove Chairman Raleigh Trammell
and treasurer Spiver Gordon after allegations of financial improprieties.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April said the two may have diverted nearly $570,000 in SCLC funds to themselves or to their individual projects. The former Chairman and treasurer deny any wrongdoing.
After months of charges and countercharges, lawsuits and countersuits, the SCLC board has a new chairperson, Sylvia Tucker, and agenda. The organization will install new president Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., at the August convention. Lafayette says the board has delayed bringing in King to avoid involving her in the recent controversies and to allow her to assume office with a clean slate.
Lafayette says SCLC is hoping to redirect public attention from its internal problems with an initiative against youth violence and school bullying. "Some people think it's all in the urban communities. No! This violence and that sort of thing is not recorded as regularly, but in suburban and rural areas, they're experiencing some of the same issues with youth violence and high youth incarceration," he says. "That's a problem we have to deal with."
Details are still being worked out, but organizers say they SCLC will rely on techniques used so effectively during the civil rights movement. Experts in non-violent conflict resolution later this year will train high school students who will in turn train their peers and middle school students. The SCLC will also use students to help curb the high dropout rate among low income youth. Strategists have already held planning sessions at Atlanta's Martin Luther King Center for Non-violent social change.
But while the youth initiative takes shape, SCLC has to contend with negative perceptions from months of turmoil in its own ranks. Bad PR that could have a long-term impact on fund-raising and membership. "It damages the image, but that's a temporary thing," says Lafayette about the scandal. "The more important thing in the end is that they will recognize that some people (in SCLC) stood up and would not allow the organization to essentially deteriorate."