Former President Returns to Historic Organization

Stacy M. Brown | 1/16/2013, 10:58 a.m.

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.