Sixty-one years ago, on the heels of the successful citywide, 13-monthlong Montgomery Bus Boycott, discontinued by its organizers only after federal courts ruled in their favor and declared segregation on intrastate travel unconstitutional, 97 preachers met in New Orleans (Feb. 1957) where they elected officers for the civil rights organization and affirmed their focus that included bus and nonviolent direct-action protests as well as securing and protecting voting rights for African Americans.
Shortly thereafter, the organization, led by its newly-elected president, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., adopted its current name, the South Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Several days ago, members and supporters of the SCLC convened in the nation’s capital for its 60th annual convention (July 12-15) during which those in the forefront reiterated the importance of the group’s decades-long mission, pointing to a host of recent events which they believe may serve to threaten the well-being of African Americans while also turning back to the clock on earlier, hard-fought victories.
Leaders within the civil rights group, including SCLC Chairman Dr. Bernard LaFayette, assert that they’re still in the game and in spite of vocal naysayers, continue being a relevant branch of America’s battalion of human rights soldiers.
“Who would believe that after all of this time that we’re still facing some of the problems that we thought we’d [successfully] addressed years earlier,” said LaFayette, appointed by Dr. King to serve as coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign shortly before his untimely death in Memphis in 1968.
“We did address them, change did come and under Dr. King’s leadership, we were successful. Today, we’re dealing with the fact that history is repeating itself. We must be vigilant about what we obtain — we’ve got to maintain. That’s why our young people need to be aware of the gains we’ve made but also how we must preserve them. Our continuing struggle transcends generations,” LaFayette said.
This year’s convention theme revolved around the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign — Dr. King’s initiative to secure economic and human rights for poor Americans, regardless of their diverse ethnic backgrounds. The Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy would take up the baton following the assassination of Dr. King and after presenting a list of demands to Congress, over 3,000 participants erected a village of tents on the National Mall where they remained for six months beginning in the spring of 1968.
King hoped to force political leaders to actually “see” the poor and to then consider their needs.
“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way . . . and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it,’” King would later write as he reflected on the goals of the campaign.
Dr. Charles Steele Jr., longtime SCLC president and CEO, said little time exists to celebrate 50th- or 60th-anniversary milestones.
“Our convention theme is ‘Rooted in Faith, Fighting Poverty and Injustice,’” he said. “We want the world to know we’re here on a continuous basis and that this is not just for the 50th. We want to reiterate that the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign is an international initiative and that we’re fighting [new] forms of slavery all over the world.”
Civil rights icon and National Newspaper Publishers Association President/CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. brought greater focus to the work that lies ahead for the SCLC.
“It’s one thing to report the news but the SCLC still makes the news,” he said. “We’ve come a long way since 1968 but God is not through with us yet. We’ve got work to do. The fact that the U.S. Justice Department has [recently] reopened the Emmett Till case shows you that sometimes it doesn’t matter who is in the White House. What matters is who’s in God’s house.”
“We need to be reawakened about why we came here 50 years ago. We need to be reawakened about why the SCLC was started 60 years ago. And we need to be reawakened about what’s going on today,” Chavis said.
LaFayette, who teaches the principles and practice of “Kingian nonviolence” on a global scale, praised the SCLC’s president for his “doggedness and determination” to continue Dr. King’s work.
“Charles Steele Jr., we would not be able to continue and achieve success were it not for your abilities and tenacity,” he said. “It’s not about the organization; it’s about what Dr. King stood for — the work he did. This organization is important because of the work that was and which continues to be done.”
U.S. Senator for New Jersey, Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark and an early favorite among Democrats as a potential candidate for the quickly-approaching 2020 presidential election, brought a sense of purpose and urgency during his address to SCLC delegates, members and guests.
“There has to be a sense of humility right now because we’re up against the arrogance of meanness,” he said. “We’re up against people who relish in being unkind but we’ve got to go a lot deeper and be a lot more focused.”
“We must be more concerned with significance than celebrity; more concerned with purpose than popularity. It’s not how many people show up at your funeral, it’s how many people you show up for in life. I worry that in our country now, we have so many divisions between us. We’ve come to hate people who have different political beliefs,” he added.
One highlight of the convention, the Women’s Empowerment Luncheon, continues to evoke positive comments from those who attended. The thought-provoking session, hosted by SCLC first lady Cathelean Steele, featured a stellar lineup including: FedEx Corp. Social Responsibility Manager Rose Flenorl; Ambassador Susan Esserman; author Danielle McGuire; National Council of Negro Women Executive Director Janice Mathis; and San Juan, Puerto Rico Mayor Carmen Cruz.
Steele, the wife of the SCLC’s leader, reaffirmed the critical role that women have historically played in the civil rights movement.
“Ladies, you know men did great work throughout the civil rights movement but we were the [foundation],” she said. “Without women they wouldn’t have accomplished what they did. I want to thank all of the men [present] for realizing that women have long been and remain their backbones.”
Maynard Eaton is an eight-time Emmy Award-winning journalist and editor of the SCLC National Magazine based in Atlanta.