Charles Steele, Jr. was 22 years old on the day that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the third-floor balcony of a colored motel in Memphis, Tennessee. By that time, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference had won two important victories.
First, congressional passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This measure opened areas of public accommodations to the nation’s Negro citizens. Despite King’s work in this area, on his April 1968 visit to Memphis, he chose to patronize the Black-owned Lorraine Motel.
Secondly, the next year, King did something that President Lyndon Baines Johnson had told him a year earlier it would be impossible to do. He had maneuvered Congress into placing the 1965 Voting Rights Act on Johnson’s desk. This Bill codified federal oversight into state and local elections in the American South, among other things, requiring Justice Department approval to any changes made to election laws — primarily in the “deep south”- where the vote had been denied to Negroes since the death of Reconstruction.
Both legislative achievements grew out of civil disobedience, bloodshed and the loss of life. Such is the ethos of SCLC: struggles, deaths, and monumental achievements. Those who signed on to work for the civil rights goals of this organization understood and embraced this methodology. Although, time and the skillful use of this stratagem brought about many different tools, there are members and affiliates of SCLC who want to continue to wage the war against “poverty, war and militarism” via the affliction and death inherent in this tool.
By age 22, Steele had gained valuable civil rights experience. In 1954, he was eight years old when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People successfully overturned Plessy versus Ferguson. This epic case outlawed the segregated caste system that economically and socially separated white citizens from Black citizens in America.
Today, he aptly notes that “Every significant civil rights advancement made in America, except the Brown versus Board of Education case, has been brought about through the work of SCLC.”
He is extremely proud of this fact.
In 1954, the US Supreme Court declared, “that public education should be desegregated with all deliberate speed.” Steele was ready for the desegregated school, but his parents, a mortician and an elementary school teacher, sent him off to school in the segregated Black school system in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was separate from the school attended by white kids from Tuscaloosa and unequal in terms of educational facilities and learning resources.
During this time, Steele had a dream. The University of Alabama campus abutted “The Bottom,” the segregated Black neighborhood where he lived. The Black kids were not allowed onto the campus, so during baseball season, they would sit on the outfield fence that separated the races and watch white college students play baseball. Steele dreamed of sitting inside the stadium to watch a baseball game. Over time, the University of Alabama relaxed its policy and allowed Blacks to attend their baseball games in designated segregated seating. Steele knew in his heart that there was something inherently unfair in being relegated to second class citizenship.
Then in 1963, he was hit with the SCLC bug. In his book, Easier to Obtain than to Maintain: The Globalization of Civil Rights (Cascade Publishing House, 2016, Atlanta, p. xxix), Steele tells the story this way:
“I remember the 1963 Civil Rights Movement in my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as if it was yesterday. A young man at the time, I was active in the ‘Movement.’ My friends and family lived on every word of Dr. Martin Luther King. The Tuscaloosa community was especially fortunate to have Reverend T. Y. Rogers, a member of Dr. King’s staff living and pastoring in our town. Reverend Rogers held weekly rallies, usually on Monday nights at the First African Baptist Church where he pastored.”
Rogers had a big influence on the type of civil rights leader Steele would ultimately become. 1n 1963, the Tuscaloosa News captured the fiery rhetoric of Rogers. You can see similarities in the retorts of Steele today. During a Monday night Mass Meeting Rogers averred:
“We will continue to demand that justice is served. The United States Constitution and the rights of every American citizen must be protected. We will not stop, we will not back down. We will march, we will have sit-ins, and we will boycott every business in this town [Tuscaloosa] that refuses to respect the dignity and rights of all citizens regardless of color. We will not stop until Jim Crow laws and segregation are removed from this town and everywhere else in this country.”
Coming under the tutelage of Rogers, Steele learned King’s approach to civil rights agitation. Thus, it came as no surprise that as a young adult, Steele would lead the local Tuscaloosa SCLC Chapter and that he would eventually become State President of the Alabama Chapter of SCLC.
As a young civil rights activist, Steele once barricaded himself in the Tuscaloosa Board of Education office for about a week. He refused to come out until concessions were made on providing equal educational opportunities for Black children in his hometown. After days without food and water, Steele emerged famished and victorious.
The hometown rallied around their native son, electing him as one of the first Black members of the city council and later sending him to the State Senate in Montgomery. As a city councilman and state legislator, he learned how to build relationships, which enabled him to negotiate deals without the necessity of facing the police violence which characterized marches during the leadership of King.
While Steele engrossed himself in negotiating a deal to bring a Mercedes Benz manufacturing plant to a Tuscaloosa suburb, to bring high paying jobs for the Tuscaloosa Black community, the national civil rights movement stalled. With the 1992 election of President William Jefferson Clinton, Black people felt they had elected the first Black President. Clinton, a southerner from Arkansas knew the language of good race relations. Black leaders felt comfortable with him and let down their guard. Civil rights activism was at an all-time low. Towards the end of Clinton’s second term, Dr. Joseph Lowery retired as the President and CEO of SCLC.
For the first 41 years, SCLC was led by three men — King, Ralph David Abernathy, and Lowery -all of whom were included in the original seven conveners of the organization. Fred Shuttlesworth would later serve after the organization declined in the early years of the 21st century. The remaining conveners Ella Baker, C. K. Steele, and Bayard Rustin never served as President. King, Abernathy, and Lowery were steady at the helm of the premier civil rights organization in the 20th century. They had a firm grasp on the founding principles of SCLC.
Lowery retired in 1998. He was succeeded by Martin Luther King, III., son of a major organizer of SCLC.
King, III had not grown into the leader he is today, and the board of old civil rights stalwarts had a hard time following his leadership. Perhaps they expected him to be his father, which of course, no one could ever be. No Black leader in this country has ever had Dr. King’s training in religion, philosophy, and politics. No Black leader, not even President Barrack Obama, can avoid being in the shadow of King. The young King moved the National SCLC headquarters from the Masonic building on “Sweet” Auburn Avenue to Edgewood Avenue in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic District.
Suffice it to say, SCLC on the backdrop of the Clinton Presidency and coupled with an improvement in the condition of middle-class Blacks, entered a quiet period in its history. As did all civil rights organizations. They all began a search for relevancy in the new millennium.
When King, III resigned in 2004 to pursue other opportunities, the SCLC board turned to the steady hand of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, whom Dr. King had called the most “courageous man he knew.” Shuttleworth, never a man able to tolerate foolishness well quickly grew tired of the palace intrigue on the board and went back home to Birmingham.
The board looked for someone outside of the founding inner circle. Charles Steele, Jr. was their leader. At the time he was growing in stature and power as a senator in the Alabama Legislature. The organization was broke. The rent on the building was due, the lights and telephones were cut-off and the staff was living on promises that one day soon, they would receive a paycheck.
Steele heard the call. It tugged at him. Since the early 1960s when he listened to Rev. T. Y. Rogers during Monday night Mass Meetings, SCLC had held a special place in his heart. On November 12, 2004, Steele left his seat in the Alabama Senate and drove over to Atlanta, Georgia. The first night in Atlanta, Steele called his wife Kathleen and told her he had checked into a five-star hotel and would send for her in a few days. Instead, he fell asleep in his car the first night he was in town. The next day he visited with Rev. Timothy Flemming at Mount Carmel Baptist Church.
He told Flemming about his dream: “As a result of the changing face of America, going forward, we must revolutionize the way we think about our approach to conflict reconciliation, economic development, and increasing our worldwide exposure.”
Flemming was so impressed with the new direction that Steele wanted to take SCLC, that he, in the Biblical sense, “sowed a seed of $25,000” into SCLC to keep it afloat.
Steele paid the rent, turned on the lights and telephones, then he got busy with plans to build a permanent home for SCLC.
“Before I became President and CEO of SCLC, only one civil rights organization (NAACP) in this country had ever built a headquarters from the ground up. If we were going to make civil rights a permanent institution in America, we needed our own building, we needed a place where we can hold workshops on nonviolence,” Steele said.
Steele rolled up his sleeves and went to work. He lobbied corporate America to partner with SCLC to build a state-of-the-art headquarters on Auburn Avenue, two doors down the street from where Dr. King had had his office. The public utility kicked in $20 million for the construction of the building.
Under the leadership of Steele, SCLC marched when it was necessary as in the 2006 case of the “Jena Six” and at other times he brokered peace between a group of Black Jews and the Israeli government.
“I envision SCLC becoming an organization with a very strong global presence. To support this vision, I am focused on building a worldwide network that is interconnected with others in a very real and significant way,” Steele said of his vision for SCLC in the 21st century.
In 2009, the construction of the headquarters building was completed. When SCLC moved into the building, it was free and clear of any debt. The organization was able to make payroll and meet its expenses. Steele had done what he was brought on board to do, so he resigned to pursue a career in international consulting.
Soon after Steele departed, there was in-fighting on the board. Some members of the board indebted the headquarters building, and checks were written on the organization’s bank account without accountability. There were lawsuits and countersuits. Little civil rights work was being done.
“Leadership on the board level was not that good,” said Dr. Bernard Lafayette. “I was not the chair of the board at that time, I was just a board member. We went through several presidents, which is problematical. When I became chairman of the board, I looked for a leader who could raise money, manage staff and had the ability to identify the critical issues that had to be addressed,” Lafayette continue.
SCLC again turned to a proven and trusted leader. In 2012, Steele was asked to come back to get the ship back on course.
“Dr. Steele was a natural choice. He is not a newcomer. He is clear on his values, which are consistent with the values of SCLC. He does not bite his tongue. He is a family man and the fact that he gives him sympathy towards people in prison and those living in poverty. Anything that he would say is in the best of the people,” Lafayette said.
Steele came back and cleared up the debt on the building, “so SCLC will always have a home,” he said at the time. The board rewarded him by naming the international headquarters, The Charles Steele, Jr. Building.
“I have to say that Dr. Steele is the number one reason that SCLC is still in business today. Look around you, SNCC is gone and CORE is gone, but because of Steele SCLC is still here,” Lafayette said.
Now a group of disgruntled civil rights warriors in search of the glory days of SCLC have started a petition to force Steele and Lafayette to resign. Marching and protesting are what these warriors did in the second half of the 20th century and marching is what they want to do in the first quarter of the 21st century. They applaud Steele for joining a voter’s suppression lawsuit in Georgia but decry him for not yelling racism loud enough in the streets.
As Steele lingers in the shadow of King, he has the added burden of giving SCLC relevancy into the next century, while the warriors of old clamor for his demise.
“It’s like Jesus and the fig tree,” Steele posited, “God gave us a gift in SCLC, but the people had stopped being fruitful. When I saw the shape that SCLC was in, I said to myself, God is about to curse SCLC if she doesn’t start bearing fruit again. These critics were here before I came to SCLC the first time. They were here when I came back, but they were not bearing fruit. Now they claim we are doing a poor job, hello somebody,” Steele said, as only he can say “hello somebody.”
“My job is bringing the street to the suite and the suite to the street,” he said.
Steele believes he can negotiate monumental achievements without shedding blood and without the assassinations of the 1960s. It is an extension of the behind-the-scenes negotiations that King orchestrated in winning passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. It is the nitty-gritty work that champions civil rights. It is not as romanticized as marching down the street with several hundred thousand protesters waving placards and shouting slogans.
Several years ago, in his home Rev. C. T. Vivian, King’s Director of Affiliate Chapters, revealed the following to this writer.
“Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act, I told Martin (Dr. King) that he had brought about all the change that could be done in this generation. I left the organization to develop a social service program in Chicago and was not around the last two years of his life. Many of us had left before Martin started the “Poor People’s Campaign. We thought it was time to use other methods to solidify the benefits of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voters Rights Act of 1965,” Vivian said.
This seems to have been the consensus coming from King’s inner circle. It’s hard to imagine that at 90 years of age King would still be a proponent of street marches as the central means to bring about social change.
In any event, Steele remains steadfast on the case. He toils in the shadow of King. This is precisely why his labor of love is misunderstood.
“I’ve saved this organization twice,” Steele said, adding, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine, Medium, and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at email@example.com