Dr. Charles Steele, Jr, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is still making moves at SCLC as he makes plans for their 59th convention. The organization first convened in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1957 to chart a course to eliminate “war, poverty and injustice.”
This year the group’s convention will meet in Memphis, Tennessee, July 20-22. It will be the 49th year that the organization has gathered since its principle organizer and fundraiser, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in that city, April 4, 1968.
Many believed in 1968 that SCLC died with Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel outside of room 306.
But men like Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, stepped up and preserved its relevancy through the last third of the 20th century and into the turbulent waters of the 21st century.
Early in the 21st century, a period of unrest descended upon SCLC, then rumors stirred again of the demise of the poor people’s campaign for peace, justice and prosperity.
“SCLC has outlived its usefulness,” those quick to abandon ship pointed out.
Others posited that as a generation of Black young people who had not been born when SCLC broke the back of ‘Jim Crow,’ came into adulthood, they would not abide by SCLC’s non-violent policy.
Riots around the country following the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King gave credence to this speculation.
There was palace intrigue and infighting inside SCLC. It became public. It caused the local daily newspaper to sound the death knell for what it would later describe as a “legacy civil rights organization.” Legacy as in obsolete, no relevancy to solutions for today’s issues.
Before the press could bury SCLC, the organization sent for the son of a Tuscaloosa, Alabama undertaker to breathe new life into Dr. King’s perpetual dream of Southern Christians leading the way in the fight for human rights for all God’s children.
In 2004 when the call came, Steele was serving in the Alabama State Senate. He had already completed a distinguished tenure as the first African American elected to the Tuscaloosa City Council and was ably serving as State President of the Alabama Chapter of SCLC.
Steele resigned his senate seat. Leaving his family in Tuscaloosa, he drove to Atlanta, where he lived out of his car, as he went from church to church begging for money – as few wanted to sow money into a dying organization – to pay the staff and turn the lights and telephone services back on at the SCLC office.
Steele was undaunted by this challenge. He met Rev. Timothy Flemming, Sr., “a boy preacher” out of Macon, Georgia who had come to Atlanta as a young man and figured out a way to self-finance Mount Carmel Baptist Church, the Atlanta area’s first mega-church.
Flemming sowed $3,000 into Steele’s vision of globalizing Dr. King’s message and taking it to the world. Steele, an avid fundraiser on the order of Dr. King received Rev. Flemming’s donation and when he had the lights and telephone service back on; he got on the telephone and began to seek corporate donations to restore what he calls, “Dr. King’s organization.”
Soon Steele had raised $5 million for the construction of a new headquarters for SCLC. When the building was dedicated in 2007, it was paid for free and clear of any debt.
SCLC was on solid footing once again. It would no longer have to worry about where it would conduct business. Staff members were able to support their families and the organization was actively engaged in the issues of the day. His mission accomplished, he resigned.
Dr. Steele then partnered with his high school football teammate, George Curry, by this time, a noted syndicated columnist, and entered the world of international consulting. He was traveling the globe meeting business and political leaders when the call came that SCLC was in financial trouble again.
In 2012, Steele came back to SCLC to find that the debt free building he had left was now encumbered. He restructured the organization’s debt and saved the building from the bank. In 2016 SCLC rewarded him for his service by naming the building, SCLC International Headquarters, The Charles Steele, Jr. Building.
In 2014, Steele called for the erection of a statue of Dr. King on the grounds of the Georgia state capitol in spite of the fact the governor had sent word; he would support putting a statute in a “statuary garden” on Washington Avenue, but not on the capitol grounds. Moreover, when Dr. King was killed the state refused to allow his remains to lie in state in the capitol rotunda.
On August 28 this year, 54 years after “The March on Washington,” a statute of Dr. King will be placed on the spot where a statute of the segregationist Tom Watson once stood on the grounds of the state capitol.
Steele’s sees this as a significant victory for the legacy of Dr. King. As he make plans for the 59 th convention in Memphis next month, Steele says, he will visit other southern states and encourage the removal of confederate statues and will call for the erection of a monument of Dr. King.
“Symbols mean something,” Steele said. “You either are for love or you are for hate. I think we ought to promote people who tried to spread love and not people who tried to overthrow the United States government.”
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round, edited Easier to obtain Than to Maintain: The Globalization of Civil Rights by Charles Steele, Jr.; and the host of Beyond the Law with Harold Michael Harvey. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.