I’ve been focusing for the last few days on men that sound like heroes. Today, unfortunately, I have to write about somebody that has turned out recently to be something of a disappointment. He’s the Rev. Dr. Byron Clay, the brand new Interim President of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), the famous civil rights organization co-founded by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dr. Ralph Abernathy, among others, in New Orleans in 1957.
Clay, from a Louisiana family of recognized civil rights activists, was named to the National Board of SCLC in 1973 at the age of fifteen, which seems really odd to me somehow, no matter how anointed he appeared to be or what a go-getter he might have been. Anyway, he was named Vice President a year ago and was vaulted into the Interim President position on the 1st of February when Charles Steele, who saved the organization from bankruptcy over the past few years, stepped down.
As a dynamic, relatively young minister who’s been in the upper echelons of the SCLC leadership for more than three decades, Clay had the opportunity to take the newly stabilized organization and run with it, but he has already made a couple of decisions in his six weeks of tenure that probably ought to call into question his ethics, at least, and consequently the appropriateness of his serving further in that capacity.
The way I found out about this situation is that, as you may have read on this blog, I attended during the week-end of February 20-22 a Poverty Tour of the Mississippi Delta organized by Antoinette Harrell. Through her work gathering data on peonage (the process of keeping African-Americans locked into a pattern of abject poverty benefiting White society and which some have called “re-enslavement”), Harrell became known to Mayor Sylvester Reed of Crenshaw, Mississippi, who ultimately appealed to her for more concrete help.
Harrell threw herself immediately into the effort and on July 6th of last year, took her first U-Haul of food and clothing to the Delta. Her fervor energized the sociological student organization I advise to collect more than thirty bags of warm winter clothing to send up in December. And during the process of the collection, I first heard about Gathering of Hearts, the organization that Harrell had co-founded with Ines Soto-Palmarin, a Boston city planner who already had a cadre of others in that area who also wanted to help. The result was the Poverty Tour I mentioned above, with the Boston contingency bringing a whole truckload of clothing and other goods down, joining Harrell et al, National Public Radio journalist Donna Owens, Dr. Ron Walters of the African-American Leadership Institute, myself and a gaggle of students for a whirlwind tour that left us all limp with emotion and a renewed commitment to change.
On that tour, Harrell had arranged for Dr. Walters, herself and me to broadcast for an hour live from a van speeding over rain-soaked highways between small towns in the Delta and it was during that broadcast that the idea for Mule Train, 2009, was born. Harrell suggested it first to the listening audience, but when she handed the mic to Dr. Walters and he agreed, developing the thought still further and still on the air, I remember thinking, “Oh, my God! This is NOT how this is done! We can’t just call for something this huge without a whole bunch of previous planning.” But when Dr. Walters handed the mic to me, I heard myself laying it down just as heavily as they had. Like I said, Antoinette Harrell lights a fire in folks and when she gets rocking, nobody is immune.
She had mentioned to me that the SCLC had been invited to accompany us on that tour, but for whatever reason, they weren’t able to join us at that time. Still, I knew the conversations between Harrell and their national office had already begun. Then, when Byron Clay learned that Harrell’s film, “The Untold Story: Slavery in the 20th Century” was being shown in Selma on March 5th during the commemoration of the famous march there in 1965, he suggested that they meet at that time.
Harrell pitches her idea to Byron Clay and the SCLC
Harrell had an agenda and she was forthright about it. She asked for their support for a Mule Train event to pick up where Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign left off. She wanted to return to Marks, Mississippi -- where the original campaign had started -- and hold a public hearing with the media present to bring attention to the grave condition of the people there. She got the support she sought, though Clay and others on his side of the table wanted to add a demonstration of some type to the public hearing. Harrell didn’t care about that, she said, as long as the focus stayed on the poor people and their plight rather than the organizations leading the parade. They set the date for the event as June 19-21. A short time later, Clay communicated that SCLC was “suggesting” that the demonstration be in Jackson, the state capital, rather than the tiny town of Lambert where the public hearing would take viewers into people’s homes, giving a voice to those this whole thing is all about.
Then, on March 17th, Clay announced "his" vision for a new Poor People's Campaign to the Associated Press, somehow and inexplicably failing to mention Harrell or Gathering of Hearts in any way. Hoping to generate a crowd of 50,000 people, Clay claimed to be “organizing poor people of all colors to form the kind of beloved community that Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about.” Toward that end, he went on, he and the other SCLC staff would shortly be meeting with leaders in Mississippi for a tour of the Delta region.
Harrell and Clay on Gathering of Hearts tour in Mississippi
Actually, the tour was one of Harrell’s making and occurred on March 24th, at which time she asked Clay about why he was not giving Gathering of Hearts its just recognition for the work it had already done and was doing. It was, after all, Harrell who had come up with the idea for Mule Train, 2009, in the first place. He claimed an “oversight” and said he “meant no harm” by it. But the signal had been sent.
Then, later that day in the living room of a young couple whose house I had written about after my visit in February, Interim SCLC President Byron Clay – with the cameras rolling -- committed $10,000 of SCLC money toward a new house for the couple, instructing local ministers to set up a bank account with all due speed to begin receiving the monies.
That was nearly a month ago. And despite the fact that Clay talks differently when appearing with Harrell in front of a camera, there have been no new press releases from SCLC clarifying their partnership with Gathering of Hearts and the newly opened bank account for the young couple’s housing fund is still empty. In fact, SCLC has now begun publicly claiming a learning center Harrell and Soto-Palmarin have been in the process of setting up in Lambert, Mississippi, since February, a project the SCLC has had no part in whatsoever.
And in the meantime, Harrell is continuing to try to work with the organization. She has already conducted another poverty tour for them this month in Louisiana and has several more in the planning stages. Her view is that Clay and the SCLC needs to be educated just like everybody else…or maybe, the way things are playing out, even more than everybody else. For Harrell, it’s never about ego; it’s about the people, which ironically enough, is exactly what Clay says, as well.
“I am always moved when I see people whose lives are stuck in oppressive conditions,” Clay was quoted by the AP as saying. “We are gathering leaders ... to give them an opportunity to see some of the Third World communities in America."
“[The SCLC] can never afford to degenerate to a political or civic organization,” he went on. “The SCLC has the moral track record to bring forth reconciliation. The nation is ready for the SCLC to be restored to its stalwart role.”
The question, I would suggest, given recent events is whether or not Clay is the one to be at the helm while this stalwart role is being restored. On the SCLC national website, a button invites folks to contact Clay by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Perhaps we should let him know we’re paying attention.
NOTE: The photos above were taken by Walter C. Black, Sr.