SCLC elects MLK’s daughter as 1st female president

Liz De La Torre

From The Associated Press

ATLANTA – The Rev. Bernice King embraced the legacy and leadership of her parents on Friday as she became the first woman to head the civil rights organization co-founded by her father.

The youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King vowed to be a bridge between the civil rights generation and the hip-hop generation as the eighth president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“I stand before you as a daughter of the civil rights movement calling forth the daughters and sons of the next generation of social change,” King said Friday at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her father preached from 1960 until his death in 1968. “I am a King, yet I am mindful that I am not the only one.”

Interim President Byron Clay announced the decision of the board of directors and notified King of the results of the election on Friday.

“She is excited,” Clay told reporters. “I am excited. The nation will be excited.”

King, who becomes the third in her family to serve as SCLC president, said she plans to work closely with The King Center and will reconnect people with her father’s philosophy of nonviolence. She said a key part of the organization’s success going forward will be recruiting and engaging younger members.

“Young people are ready,” King said. “They just need direction. Any movement of change always happens with young people.”

Women will also play a key role, she said.

“It is critical to the success of the next generation of social change to have the full and active commitment and participation of girls and women of all ages,” King said. “After all, as my mother would remind me, a woman’s place is in the struggle. We must be the soul of a nation.”

Chairman Raleigh Trammell of Dayton, Ohio, called King a “dynamite person with a great personality and a great heart.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was the SCLC’s first president, serving from 1957 until his assassination in 1968. His eldest son, Martin Luther King III, was president from 1998 to 2003.

Bernice King inherits an SCLC much changed from the days of her father’s leadership. And she will have to work to rebuild the organization while she heals deep rifts within her own family.

Internal bickering has overshadowed signs of progress for SCLC that included paying off millions in debt and opening a $3 million headquarters in Atlanta. A former state director in Florida accused several national leaders of financial mismanagement and the president of the Los Angeles chapter last fall clashed with leadership over his support for gay marriage in California.

Bernice King and her brother Martin spent much of the past year in a legal battle with their brother, Dexter King, over control of their father’s estate. Earlier this month, the siblings agreed to appoint a temporary custodian to handle the affairs of King, Inc., while the three of them focused on mending their relationship.

“She can hearken back to her father’s legacy, but she’s going to have to redefine it,” said Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie. “She now, as his child, is going to have to figure out a way to push that legacy forward so we don’t perpetuate a stagnant, chauvinistic civil rights agenda.”

The Rev. Eric Lee, the Los Angeles chapter president, said in a statement Friday that he hopes King will follow her parents’ example with respect to the rights of lesbians, gays and transgender people.

“We know that her mother, Coretta Scott King, was supportive of LGBT equality, and we believe that Dr. King would have been as well,” Lee said. “My hope is that her election is a sign that SCLC is returning to its spirit of equality for all people.”

By a vote of 23 to 15, King defeated Judge Wendell Griffen of Little Rock, Ark, for the position. Griffen was the first black attorney to work for a major Arkansas law firm and is an ordained minister and pastor of New Millennium Church.

The SCLC has roughly 10,000 members and nearly 80 chapters in 17 states from Georgia to California.