Charles Steele Jr., Takes Reins at SCLC, Celebrates Inaugural
The man who once presided over the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the most storied civil rights organization in America, has returned to lead the group in celebrating President Barack Obama’s historic second inauguration on Monday.
Charles Steele Jr., who is back at the helm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), will also help the group mark what would have been the 84th birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights champion who helped found the SCLC 56 years ago.
“With the great history of the SCLC, there was no way I could sit idly by and let it go under,” Steele said. “The board asked me to come back and I did.”
Steele, 66, said he had heard too often the doom and gloom that surrounded the once proud organization that rose to prominence during King’s monumental battle to gain civil rights for African Americans and others.
Once Steele stepped aside in 2008 as president of the Atlanta, Ga.-based organization, the whispers in and outside the African American and civil rights communities grew louder.
King’s image was being tarnished, some wrote, while others said the SCLC had simply lost its relevance.
“The world has let us know that the SCLC is needed as much now as we were when King was our leader,” Steele said.
“Are we still relevant and important? I’d argue, especially based on what I’ve heard during my travels, that we are more important and more relevant now than ever before. There is still a great need for us to continue what King was doing during the movement and a greater need to see that his dream is fulfilled,” he said.
Steele returned in July as chief executive officer amid calls from the board of directors to restore financial stability and credibility to the SCLC.
During the announcement in July, SCLC Board Chairman Bernard LaFayette didn’t hesitate to voice his full support for Steele, who had led the organization during more prosperous times.
“The storm is over for SCLC,” LaFayette, 72, said. “We are rebuilding our executive team and Dr. Steele is a vital member.”
The SCLC found itself immersed in controversy after a 2010 complaint was filed by its General Counsel, Dexter Wimbish, alleging that the group’s then-chairman Rev. Raleigh Trammell, 74, and treasurer, Spiver Gordon, 73, had engaged in unauthorized expenditures.
Both men were ultimately cleared of those charges, although Trammell was later convicted in an unrelated theft case in Dayton, Ohio.
Since his return, Steele hasn’t wasted any time in seeking to restore the legacy that was instilled by King and others during the tumultuous civil rights movement in the mid-20th century.
“We went global,” he said. “I just got back from the Ukraine and France and we have a vision which is to spread King’s vision throughout the world.”
Among the many foreign dignitaries he met with included Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of state of the former Soviet Union, Steele said.
“We met for two hours and the first thing he asked me in Moscow was whether or not King’s dream has been fulfilled,” Steele said. “No, it has not been. We’ve just begun to embark upon having any token of the dream being fulfilled.”
“Gorbachev asked me what could he do?” Steele said. “I told him to become a partner with African Americans who have made the supreme sacrifice with their lives. We have to take this opportunity to let the world know because the SCLC isn’t going anywhere, we are here to stay for at least another 100 years because there is a need for the SCLC and the civil rights movement.”
Steele also took his message of a global civil rights campaign to France, Israel and Palestine, he said, noting that many individuals from those countries inquired as to how King and other African Americans were able to endure great oppression during the struggle.
“Well, you won’t find people in leadership roles who speak out but I have a right to tell the truth. You can’t be scared and you can’t be a scared Negro because that will get you killed.”
Steele also plans to increase calls for more African Americans to register to vote and participate in global economic efforts that should see more jobs created for black people, he said.
“We’ve got to do something about black voter registration. We celebrate Obama, but our people must keep in mind that we operate at a disadvantage when we lack information,” Steele said. “We also need to realize financial freedom in the form of a global economy that African Americans have yet to take advantage of.”
The world has moved toward a global society and the impact of that movement can be as great for African Americans as anyone else if interest and participation are high, Steele said.
“We must take responsibility and help to bring about opportunities from a global perspective. If we do, our impact would be strong enough that we can really empower one another and finally realize that part of King’s dream,” he said.
Outspoken, witty and, at times, deadpan serious, Steele seemingly has the complete backing of SCLC’s officials.
“He has the credibility that we need,” said the Rev. Samuel F. Mosteller, 54, president of the group’s Georgia chapter.
“Without (Steele), we would be moving a lot slower,” LaFayette said. “Now, we will move swiftly into the future.”
The organization will host a gala that will highlight its accomplishments and celebrate Obama’s re-election.
Festivities are set to begin at 11 a.m., Jan. 20 at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Southwest and 8 p.m., Jan. 21 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Northwest. The SCLC will also mark what would have been King’s 84th birthday during the festivities.
“These events are going to highlight the accomplishments of SCLC since its inception and showcase the work that has been done and define the work that is left to do,” Steele said.
The SCLC will celebrate Obama’s re-election and “the people who made the election possible,” Steele said. “We will honor not only the president of the United States, but the legacy of our founding President Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
A gospel brunch hosted by Sunday Best All-Star Corey Webb will kick off at 11 a.m., on Sunday at the hotel. Guests will hear messages from the Rev. Gwendolyn Boyd of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church of Fort Washington, Md., and the Rev. Kevin Adams of Olivet Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn. Admission for the brunch is $65.
The invite-only “Dream Keepers for Justice” dinner on Sunday evening at 7:30 p.m., will follow. That event will include Earl Bynum, the executive director of music at Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va., as well as singer Pauline Key, and singer and musician, Richard Smallwood.
Rap legends Whodini will highlight the People’s Inaugural Gala at 8 p.m., Jan. 21 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Steele said he’s hopeful the president will at least make a cameo. Tickets for that gala are $80 and can be purchased by visiting www.sclcnational.org or by calling 404-522-1420, ext. 213.