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MLK daughter's exit leaves SCLC's future in doubt

By Errin Haines

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 22 2011 1:20 a.m. MST

ATLANTA — The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by the giants of the American civil rights movement, has spent years in decline and power struggles. Now the once-proud organization faces what might be a final blow with the refusal of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter to take the helm.

By Friday, following the recent indictment of a former national chairman on theft charges, King's one-time lieutenants and his daughter had come to the conclusion that the group — which led the movement to end segregation in public facilities and open access to the ballot box for millions of black Americans — might have run its course.

"We should've closed it down years ago," former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s closest advisers, said Friday after the Rev. Bernice King's announcement. "I saw this as a lost cause a long time ago."

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, the SCLC's longest-serving president and 2010 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work during the civil rights movement, said he spoke with Bernice King on Friday.

"She and the board couldn't find common ground, so I think she did the wise thing, rather than enter into a relationship with built-in turbulence," Lowery said, adding that he was saddened by what has happened to the organization.

When King became the first woman elected SCLC president in 2009, she vowed to reinvigorate the organization by expanding the group's reach to more women and a younger generation.

Soon after, the SCLC's chairman and treasurer were accused of financial mismanagement, and squabbling among the group's leaders landed the splintered factions in a courtroom. She put off taking her oath as president of the landmark civil rights group co-founded by her father, remaining largely silent as the group's troubles escalated over the past 16 months.

King told The Associated Press that in the end, she and the group's leaders didn't agree on how to move forward.

"In light of that, and attempts on several occasions to try to reach out and dialogue, this is where I've landed," she said. "Essentially, I knew that I was not going to be merely a figurehead, so I had to make a critical decision. I look forward to continuing the legacies of my parents and establishing my own legacy."

Although she called the SCLC's recent troubles unfortunate, King stopped short of saying the SCLC should disband.

"They have chapters around the nation who hold the name SCLC and they are doing different kinds of work in their communities," King said. "They have an opportunity ... to decide and redefine how they want to be projected in the public."

King said she notified board leaders of her decision Thursday. Now, she said she is focusing on other endeavors.

This week, King launched a 100 Days of Nonviolence campaign at the Coretta Scott King Academy, named for her mother. The initiative is in response to the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., which claimed six lives and left U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords recovering from a gunshot wound to the head.

King also plans to republish her mother's book, "My Life with Martin Luther King Jr.," and release the King matriarch's never-before published autobiography.

Andrew Young, also a former Atlanta mayor, said Bernice King's departure from the organization was "wonderful."

"I tried to get Bernice to see when she wanted to revive it that it wasn't worth wasting her talents on, that we needed to let it go," Young said. "That doesn't mean that there's not work to be done."

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