The last three years may have been the most challenging ever for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says its new president, Isaac Newton Farris Jr.
“We certainly have had to look again at our goals and methodology,” said Farris, who appeared Saturday at the fifth annual Urban Summit, a daylong gathering of community and neighborhood leaders.
“But in doing so, I believe we have made the organization relevant again. Our mission will continue to be the same.
“We will always be the voice of the voiceless.”
Relevance for the SCLC has rarely been an issue.
But rarely has the leadership been so divided for the iconic civil rights organization, founded in 1957 by Martin Luther King Jr. and other ministers following the Montgomery, Ala., Bus Boycott of 1955 and 1956.
In 2009, SCLC board members elected Bernice King, youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., as organization president. King had been poised to become the SCLS’s seventh permanent leader.
But she delayed taking office because of turmoil between competing factions. Authorities had launched investigations following accusations of financial mismanagement by some board members.
Those investigations had divided the organization, Farris said.
“The board actually split into two factions that were fighting for control of the organization,” he said.
In January 2011, King announced she was declining to take her leadership position of the organization.
Later that same month, the Rev. Howard Creecy Jr. became the new national SCLC president. Creecy spoke often of healing the organization and infusing its membership with younger members by establishing new chapters on college campuses and in high schools.
But Creecy died suddenly in late July.
Farris became president in August.
In November an 18-month inquiry resulted in no proof of financial mismanagement among SCLC board members. But the same report also recommended that SCLC officers revisit organization bylaws to clarify duties and responsibilities.
That’s what is happening now, Farris said.
“Right now we are just focused primarily on doing some housecleaning,” Farris said.
Creecy’s death in the midst of such turmoil was difficult, Farris said.
“It was difficult from the standpoint of just being caught off-guard,” he said. “He was a relatively young man in good health. And we were very close, personally.”
But Creecy’s death was not greatly disruptive from an organizational standpoint, said Farris, who added that he already had been serving in a vice presidential capacity. His subsequent confirmation as president was swift, Farris said, and he supports Creecy’s efforts to bring more youth into the organization. Some youth chapters, he said, have been established,.
But just as pressing, he said, is the restructuring of the organization following the turmoil of recent years.
“There really had been about a two-year lull while the parties were fighting it out,” Farris said. “I was not a part of that. But the organization was kind of left in limbo, and a lot of things fell through the cracks.”
Farris is the son of Christine King Farris, older sister of Martin Luther King Jr. Born in April 1962, Farris was just shy of 6 years old when his uncle was killed. His memories of his uncle, Farris said, are more of the family member he knew as “Uncle ML” than of the civil-rights leader.
“I was too young to understand,” Farris said.
“A lot of people see the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, and they don’t realize my uncle was also a fun-loving guy who loved to bring laughter,” Farris said. “I have a lot of memories of riding bikes and playing baseball with Uncle ML.
“I didn’t learn of ‘Dr. King’ until later.”
Farris attended his uncle’s school, Morehouse College, majoring in political science.
In 1984 he served as Georgia field coordinator for Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign. The following year he served as deputy manager for the re-election campaign of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.
In 1996 Farris was appointed chief operating officer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta. He served as center president from 2005 through 2010 and now is a center senior fellow.
Farris long has been an advocate for persuading more Americans to consider the annual King birthday celebration a day of service. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed legislation intended to achieve that. That concept grew more accepted, Farris said, after president-elect Barack Obama joined more than 1 million other Americans in volunteering for a service project in January 2009.
“That was the first time we surpassed the 1 million person mark,” Farris said. “And now that has continued to grow.
“More and more people are embracing it.”
The Rev. Nelson “Fuzzy” Thompson of Kansas City, longtime president of the SCLC’s Greater Kansas City chapter, said he is confident in Farris’ ability to lead the organization.
“He certainly has the family background,” Thompson said. “But he also comes with good credentials and experience, and everybody seems pleased because he calmed a lot of the turmoil.”
“I think he will do a good job.”