It took courage to suspend Martin Luther King III from the presidency of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but the move was much needed and provided some overdue reinvigoration for a civil rights organization that some believed had lost its relevance.
As the fourth president of the civil rights group founded in 1957 by his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. King was leading the SCLC nowhere. The organization's board reinstated him after a week-long suspension, but the suspension did what it was intended to do: It got his attention and motivated him to take a more active leadership role.
Mr. King was notified of the board's decision in a letter from the national chairman. Dr. Claud Young of Detroit wrote that Mr. King has “consistently been insubordinate and displayed inappropriate, obstinate behavior in the (negligent) carrying out of your duties as president of SCLC.”
It's a shameful and embarrassing reprimand given to the son of a world figure on the order of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King founded SCLC, once among the most powerful civil rights groups, on the heels of the success of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Soon after Mr. King became president in 1998 concerns began to surface. He was rarely seen or heard, and he refused to respond to SCLC board members' correspondence. That low profile contrasted dramatically to the conference's traditionally pro-active image, and a membership that once consisted largely of passionate, outspoken, and out-front black ministers and activists.
The SCLC's history is too rich and its purpose too important for it to languish now. Indeed, many of the civil rights issues of today are different from those of half a century ago. What once was starkly black and white with regard to race relations is now often a shade of gray. That requires new leadership and new approaches; millions of young black Americans weren't around during the battles of the 1950s and 1960s.
Mr. King says he's committed to the SCLC. Others will watch to see if his new attitude endures. If not, the SCLC board has proved that it will do what's necessary to stay the course of the organization.