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SCLC head seeks to ignite passion for civil rights

Charles Steele responded when God called, leaving the Alabama State Senate to go to Atlanta to revive the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Charles Steele
Charles Steele
Even knowing it was on the verge of collapse and he would not be paid enough to support his family, he responded.

“I felt called to rebuild the organization started by Martin Luther King, Jr., and to carry on his dreams for it,” Charles recently told those gathered for the Freedom Fund Banquet of the Spokane Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  “I couldn’t let it die.”

The businessman, politician and civil rights leader was the first African American elected to the City Council of Tuscaloosa and one of the first African Americans elected to the Alabama State Senate.

He grew up in the Jim Crow and segregation era of the 1950s and 1960s, involved in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, working up the ranks to be come its national president.

“We have come a long way, but have a long way to go.  Now many have amnesia about where we have come from,” he said, asserting the need to remember and to know that economics, education and empowerment are inseparable.

“Most college graduates today can’t find a job.  I know.  I’m a parent.  My daughter works for me.  Today, even if you get education, you still can’t get a job,” Charles said.

He challenged those who treat Rosa Parks as a celebrity in her death, while ignoring that a year and a half ago, she was going to be evicted from her home.  He raised money to take care of her while she was alive.

“Don’t play with the civil rights movement.  The question is what will we do now her funeral is over,” he said.

“When I took over the SCLC there was no money.  Lights and phone were cut off.  In eight months, the organization will be in its own $3-million building.”

Charles also seeks to follow through on King’s vision for peace in the Middle East, identifying with Jews who had a holocaust because, Charles said, “African Americans in slavery and since experienced a hell-ocaust. 

We both need to tell our stories to the next generation.”

Charles calls educators, parents, preachers, teachers and leaders to go global for the future. 

“We can’t survive just going to church, going home, watching TV and getting a soda.  Soon the #1 auto manufacturer will be China, which I just visited,” he said.

“We must build relationships in the global market.  No matter how good a product is, if you do not know your clients, they will not buy.  People must trust you.”

Charles said many blacks think they have arrived and do not need to know about, to hear or tell the story of the past. 

“We have not arrived.  We need to get back on the civil rights train so blacks, whites and all folk will live in freedom,” he said.

The Klu Klux Klan and whites are no longer our only problem.  Sometimes black faces in white places build buffers so other black people do not win contracts or jobs,” he finds. “They are carrying out the discrimination.

“Because we refuse to admit where we came from and misrepresent our history, we are bleeding internally,” he said.  “Blacks and whites need to be re-educated, because the education system is still enslaved.”

Charles raises his critique because he loves America so much he wants to correct it.  He wants America to lead the way in economics and education. 

“If ever there was a time that we needed God and the civil rights movement it is now.  What kind of society would we have if we said we do not need the organization that gave us the Civil Rights Bill and the Voters Rights Bill?  We still need direct action today,” Charles challenged.

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By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © December 2005