Dr. Charles Steele Jr. is taking the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to new heights beyond the apex of its glory days. Photo courtesy of the SCLC website

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN – The Southern Christian Leadership Conference survived decades of internal discord and instability after its founding in 1957, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., SCLC’s first president, began leading the organization through the tumultuous civil rights movement.

Dr. Charles Steele Jr., SCLC’s current president and CEO, is leading the organization through global discord and instability, and evokes the organization’s creed to “Redeem the Soul of America.”

Steele will be in Memphis July 20-23 when SCLC convenes its 59th convention at the historic Peabody Hotel. The theme: “The Hour is Now to: Believe, Empower, Act.” The issues: poverty, injustice, economic inequality, police brutality, and others.

Steele is the first non-clergyman to lead SCLC, an interfaith organization committed to peace, unity and non-violence. Since its founding 59 years ago, he said, “We’re in worse shape than we were.” Black success today, he added, is cosmetic at best. “We attained it, but we didn’t maintain it,”

There have been highs and lows over the course of SCLC’s existence. The organization, however, is still relevant, said Steele, recalling a conversation he once had with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union before its collapse.

“The first thing he asked me was, ‘Steele, have we fulfilled the dream? Is the dream complete?’ I told the president, ‘Mr. Gorbachev…no…we’re not halfway there.’”

Gorbachev’s sentiments were embodied in the hopes and aspirations of African Americans past and present who’re still searching for the elusive dream. Steele said other world leaders likewise understand the black experience and the travails of black life in America.

On Sept. 13, 1964, Dr. King delivered a heartfelt speech in East Berlin at Sophienkirche (Sophia Church). Gorbachev was listening intently, Steele said. “He wasn’t in the audience; he was eavesdropping.”

Steele has traveled all over the world. He’s visited five continents and countless countries, including Moscow, Russia; Berlin, Germany; Jerusalem, Israel; Rome, Italy; and many countries in Africa.

He’s motivated by the support that SCLC has received from many world leaders. “People say to me, who’re receiving us, ‘Don’t give up on SCLC, because if you stop, you stop the flow of freedom throughout the world.’”

Steele has taken SCLC to new heights. In 2006, he raised $3.3 million (and more than $10 million altogether in first five years at the helm) to build an international headquarters for SCLC in Atlanta.

The slogan, “New Day…New Way,” signified that a change had come.

“I can’t run SCLC the way we ran it in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said. “I have to have God to give me the anointing, vision and enough sense to understand that I got to have good people who will never be seen supporting me resourcefully….”

Steele is focused on economic development – which, like the black man’s quest for freedom, has eluded the black community, the charismatic leader said. “We’ve gone backwards due to the fact that we have not embraced the economic development aspect in our community.”

He predicts, for example, a sobering decline in black banks and financial institutions within the next 15 to 20 years. “Something is wrong with that,” said Steele, adding that the problem is systemic.

“In the last 8 to 9 years, we have lost 52 to 53 percent of our black wealth. It will take two generations for us to get it back,” Steele said. He pointed out that 52 to 53 percent of homes in the black community were lost through Wall Street and the banking industry.

Black wealth, Steele said, is evaporating and cannot be solidified with government oversight. “The government is the enemy,” he said, borrowing the line from Dr. King. “The government is not going to do anything to free you.”

It wouldn’t matter who is president, Steele said. “I don’t care if we have a black president, brown president, Caucasian, Hispanic, politics can’t free us. We’re in a system.”

He said it also wouldn’t matter the political party. “I’m not Republican or Democrat. I’m Baptist. I do ‘Thus said the Lord.’ That’s what sustains us. That’s where we are. That’s where we’re gonna be… and we’ll be here forever.”

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