HAWKINS — Recalling their personal civil rights work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., two Southern Christian Leadership Conference representatives sought to inspire students during a social justice conference Monday at Jarvis Christian College.
The workshop was part of the college’s “Mission, Vocation and the Call to Social Justice: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. John D. Mangram” conference.
Dr. Charles Steele Jr., previously an Alabama state senator, is the current president/CEO of the SCLC. Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. is a SCLC board member and “Kingian nonviolence” instructor.
Both men knew King and worked with him on civil rights issues.
The SCLC was formed during a 1957 conference during which King and 60 others “issued a document declaring that civil rights are essential to democracy, that segregation must end, and that all black people should reject segregation absolutely and nonviolently,” according to the organization’s website.
“Dr. King’s first obligation was not to lead a march and make a great speech. … His first duty and obligation as the leader of SCLC (was) raising money. You have to have money to run an organization,” Steele said.
The organization still stands in Atlanta because of international fundraising. Its current president raised $20 million in more than three years, and a new headquarters building was built debt free, Steele said.
The SCLC president said King, “the most hated man in America,” was assassinated for two reasons: his opposition of the Vietnam War and organization of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“(King) became a target because he said, ‘The bombs that are dropped on Vietnam will one day explode in America.’ He was very critical of America, rightfully so,” Steele said. “Equality for everybody, that’s what he was for. He was for redistribution of the wealth. … Dr. King was killed because he said there should be no poor people in this country.”
Steele said the Poor People’s Campaign was started after King “discovered the impoverishment of the people” living in shotgun houses in Marks, Mississippi.
Lafayette was appointed as the campaign’s chairman. He said he participated in the Nashville sit-ins, Freedom Rides and Alabama Voter Registration Project before joining the campaign, he said.
“I only found out 20 years ago … why (King) selected me when he had all those other folk. In fact, when he selected me, my job was to supervise James Bevel, Jesse Jackson — and Hosea Williams. All of those (men) were older than I. During that time I was just in my early 20s,” he said.
King and campaign representatives organized a march in Memphis, protesting the wages of sanitation workers, with the overall goal of ending poverty and housing disparities, according to its website. Lafayette said he was with King hours before his assassination.
Steele said the Memphis police, aided by the FBI, killed King in a Memphis hospital after he was shot outside a hotel room. Information he relayed regarding King’s assassination can be found in House Selection Committee documents from a lawsuit filed by King estate, he said.
Lafayette said, “You don’t have to accept the kind of conditions that exist anymore because we learned from Dr. King and we’re able to apply it.”