In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as a regional offshoot of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The aim of the organization was to build upon and move beyond the MIA’s successful bus boycott by promoting nonviolent mass resistance as a means of disrupting systems of segregation throughout the South.
Though evangelical in origin (its motto was “to redeem the soul of America!”) the organization was inclusive in practice. Persons were welcome regardless of race, religion or even sexual orientation; i.e., Stanley Levinson (Jewish), Ella Baker (religiously indifferent) and Bayard Rustin (black, gay, Quaker). The SCLC was based on King’s notion of “Beloved Community” and the morally consistent maxim that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Unfortunately, Ella Baker was correct. Any organization built around the charisma of its leader, would never outlive that leader. Thus, for the most part, the SCLC has sputtered along the road of irrelevancy for the past four decades on little more than the fumes of King’s iconic image.
This is why I was saddened to hear that the national office desires to silence a chapter that seeks to remain relevant. The Los Angeles Chapter voted unanimously to protest the passing of Proposition 8 earlier this year.
Like NAACP chair Julian Bond and NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, Los Angeles SCLC members view state amendments prohibiting the rights of gays and lesbians as a threat to democracy, the right of a majority dictating a minority. Yet the president of the Los Angeles chapter, Rev. Eric Lee, has now been threatened with removal by the national office. It would seem that the same-sex marriage debate, or better put, the revocation of citizen’s rights via constitutional bans, is not on the SCLC’s radar.
Its troubling to the point of tragic that SCLC national officers don’t interpret this as an opportunity to build justice-oriented coalitions in the contemporary moment. Rather than be part of a justice movement, I guess the SCLC would rather hold banquets inside of its own civil rights museum.