By George E. Curry
ATLANTA – The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Atlanta-based civil rights organization co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has named its international headquarters at 320 Auburn Avenue, N.E. in honor of Charles Steele, Jr., its current president and CEO.
Steele, a former Alabama state senator from Tuscaloosa, AL served from 2004-2009 as its sixth president since the founding of SCLC in 1957. When he assumed office, the organization could not pay its utility bills and was nearly $2 million in debt.
Fred Shuttlesworth, the leader of the Birmingham, Ala. civil rights struggle and a former SCLC president, had written off his organization as dead, saying: “Only God can give life to the dead.”
When he took over, a confident Charles Steele answered that criticism directly, saying, “Well, I talked with God as well and he said he was not coming, but he sent me.”
And the record appears to support his godly assertion.
Steele said within three years, he had raised approximately $20 million – half in cash and the other half through in-kind contributions.
Having accomplished his primary mission, Steele decided to return to his life as a businessman in 2009. But his “retirement” would be short-lived.
In 2014, Steele was asked by the board of directors to give up his full-time private consulting business to return as president to an organization again on the verge of financial collapse.”Dr. Steele has returned as president because of a very important need at this point which is fundraising and fund development. That’s a primary responsibility of the president, and he has excellent skills and contacts in that arena to help us maintain our financial stability,” Board Chairman Bernard LaFayette, Jr. said at the time.
After Steele’s 5-year stint, SCLC went through a series of leadership changes. The charismatic president and fundraiser was succeeded by Rev. Howard W. Creecy, Jr., who served from 2009-2011, when he died accidently while still in office. Issac Farris Jr., a nephew of Dr. King, was dismissed in 2012 after serving less than a year as president. He was followed by civil rights icon Rev. C.T. Vivian, who agreed to serve on an interim basis until SCLC could select a new president.
For stability, SCLC turned again to a reliable face.
Steele, the only person who has ever served twice as president of the storied civil rights group, has been widely recognized for raising most of the $3.5 million to erect the 2-story building on Auburn Avenue and providing the leadership to resurrect the troubled organization.
The building, which opened in 2007, carries the official name: “SCLC International H.Q. – Charles Steele, Jr. Bldg.” A marker is prominently displayed above the front entrance of the building.
“Here is a president who, for the first time, made it possible for SCLC to own its own headquarters,” said LaFayette, the SCLC board chairman. “This is not just a building, it’s an international headquarters named to emphasize our international thrust.”
Steele said he was deeply touched by the decision to name the building in his honor.
“I could go on forever without the personal recognition,” he said in an interview. “But to put my name on the building gives respect to all of the people who supported me, especially my family. It’s a blessing from God and the expression of gratitude says that my work has not been in vain.”