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Rift in civil rights group results in split

In an unseemly argument over money, mission and leadership, a national civil rights organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and its Florida affiliate have severed ties.

The Florida chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has formed a rival civil rights group called the National Christian Leadership Conference.

St. Petersburg's Sevell C. Brown III, who served as state president of the SCLC chapter, is the new group's interim national director.

The parting of the ways exposes accusations and counter-accusations in the organization that King founded in 1957 to advance civil rights.

In a statement about the break, Brown accused the national organization of losing its way and becoming "money changers in the temple of civil rights."

In his statement, he said the federal government has launched "well-founded investigations into missing funds well in excess of 1.5 million dollars."

The SCLC dismissed Brown's accusations and said it parted ways with him first.

The Atlanta-based organization had received complaints of Brown's "lack of leadership and that he only makes himself known during the Martin Luther King celebration."

SCLC general counsel Dexter Wimbish called Brown's accusations of financial impropriety "unfounded and libelous" and said the organization has invited the U.S. Attorney General's Office to investigate the issue.

"We have forwarded a complete set of financial documents including audited statements going back nearly a decade, and we look forward to having the name SCLC cleared. SCLC's goal is to provide both transparency and accountability to both our members and our contributors," he wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.

Brown's announcement of a rival civil rights organization, Wimbish said, was "simply another attempt … to move the conversation away from the fact that he was removed for ineffective leadership and failure to maintain a level of compliance that satisfies our fiduciary obligations to our membership and financial supporters."

Others disagree.

In a conference call from Tallahassee, Sharron Fagans, a former compliance officer for the SCLC, said the Florida chapter had been one of the most active in the nation. She used the case of Martin Lee Anderson, the teenager who died in 2006 after being struck by guards in a juvenile boot camp, as an example. Fagans and the Rev. Sam Phillips, the group's former state vice president, said the civil rights group launched a vendetta against Brown after he questioned its financial practices.

"We wanted everything to be transparent," Phillips said. "It all boils down to money."

Bobby Doctor, former southern regional director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, is interim president of the new National Christian Leadership Conference.

He said the group will address civil rights and economic conditions of minorities and the poor.

"We anticipate that our organization is going to be on the cutting edge of civil rights in America. … Not only civil rights in the suites, but civil rights in the streets," he said.

"We are responding to the human outcry of those who loved Martin Luther King," Brown said.

The SCLC has established a new Florida chapter. Tuesday, new leader Art Rocker issued a statement saying that members of the reorganized group "voted out" Brown in June.

Members of the SCLC national board will visit St. Petersburg on Friday to begin reorganizing a local chapter.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at or (727) 892-2283.

Rift in civil rights group results in split 07/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 21, 2009 10:46pm]
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