We Need SCLC Now More Than Ever
ATLANTA – The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, celebrating its 50th anniversary for the past week, made a strong case that it is once again a major player on the civil rights stage and strongly defended the need for the continued existence of major civil rights organizations.
Many critics had questioned the need for SCLC, saying the organization had essentially died in 1968 with co-founder Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Immediate past-president Fred Shutlesworth, who quit in 2004 after clashing with the SCLC board of directors, said the organization had reached its nadir in 2004, when he stepped down. Now, Shuttlesworth is optimistic about SCLC's chances for recovery.
Steele, a former Alabama state senator, is widely credited with revitalizing an organization that was moribund and nearly bankrupt three years. In three years, he has raised more than $7 million and on Monday prepared to move into a new $3 million international headquarters on historicAuburn Avenue
"As an organization, just a few years ago, people were writing us off as dead," Steele said. "I am an undertaker. I bury dead people, but not dead organizations …we weren't dead, but we were struggling on life support."
He says that has now turned around.
"I came here tonight to announce that SCLC now has a strong pulse," Steele continued. "We are out of our sick bed. We walked out of the Intensive Care Unit on our own power. We disconnected the tubes from our arms, we removed the heart monitor, and we unplugged the oxygen tank because now, thank God, we can breathe on our own."
Conservatives -- and some Blacks -- try to portray civil rights organizations as having outlived their usefulness. According to their argument, the movement is a victim of its own success because it tore down the barriers of segregation.
There is no post-civil rights era," Steele declared. "We're in a post-civil rights enforcement era," he said, emphasizing the word enforcement. One common complaint against the Bush is that under this administration, civil rights cases are not pursued with vigor, a shift from the practices of the previous president. Justice Department officials deny that assertion.
But in his speech, Steele cited what he said was proof that we don't live in a post-civil rights society:
• We're not living in a post-Civil Rights Era when Don Imus sees accomplished Black women basketball players at Rutgers University as "nappy-headed hos";
• It was not just him. We're not in a post-civil rights era when the chairman of the board of trustees of Roger Williams University in Providence, R.I., a lily-White board, can refer to African Americans as the n-word;
• We're not living in a post-civil rights era when the president of the United States of America can call a news conference on Dr. King's birthday to denounce affirmative action;
• We're not in a post-civil rights era when a Democratic-controlled Congress refuses to cut off funding for a needless and senseless war;
• We're not living in a post-civil rights era when a White person with a prison record is more likely to be called back for a job interview than a qualified Black person without a record.
• We're not living in a post-civil rights era when 15-year-old Shaquanda Cotton can be sentenced to seven years in prison for pushing a teacher's aide in Paris, Texas. Just months earlier, that same judge had given probation to a 14-year-old White girl who had burned down her family's home;
• We're not living in a post-civil rights era when it took the Georgia Supreme Court to throw out the conviction of Marcus Dixon, a 19-year-old African American, who was serving 10 years in prison for having consensual sex with a White girl;
• We're not living in a post-civil rights era when in Douglas County, Ga., 17-year-old Genarlow Wilson faced 10 years in prison on molestation charges because he had consensual sex with a 15-year-old; and
• We're certainly not living in a post-civil Rights Era when for years they had a tree near Jena High School in Louisiana under which only White students sat. When Blacks decided to sit there, they later found nooses hanging from tree limbs. Subsequently, a racial fight broke out and six Black teenagers -- now called the Jena 6 -- were charged with attempted murder after beating a White teenager.
Steele declared, "Judging by the latest Supreme Court ruling involving school districts in Louisville and Seattle, looking at organized efforts by Right-wing groups to intimidate universities into eliminating their affirmative action programs and considering the Justice Department has gone after Southern Illinois University because it had a voluntary affirmative action program, we need SCLC now more than ever."
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.