ATLANTA – For more than a year, the daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put off taking her oath as president of the landmark civil rights group co-founded by her father — and now she doesn't want the job at all.
The Rev. Bernice King's decision to abandon the Southern Christian Leadership Conference comes at the worst possible time for the once-proud organization, which has struggled to stay relevant as it split into two factions, had its finances scrutinized and saw its former chairman indicted last week on theft charges.
The SCLC, which led the movement to end segregation in public facilities and open access to the ballot box for millions of black Americans, has fallen so far that former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young said he told Bernice King she had better things to do with her time.
"We should've closed it down years ago," Young, who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., said Friday after King's announcement. "I saw this as a lost cause a long time ago."
When King became the first woman elected SCLC president in 2009, she had vowed to reinvigorate the organization by expanding the group's reach to more women and a younger generation.
Soon after, the SCLC's chairman and treasurer were accused of financial mismanagement, and squabbling among the group's leaders landed the splintered factions in a courtroom. She remained largely silent as the group's troubles escalated over the past 16 months.
King told The Associated Press that in the end, she and the group's leaders didn't agree on how to move forward.
"In light of that, and attempts on several occasions to try to reach out and dialogue, this is where I've landed," she said. "Essentially, I knew that I was not going to be merely a figurehead, so I had to make a critical decision. I look forward to continuing the legacies of my parents and establishing my own legacy."
Although she called the SCLC's recent troubles unfortunate, King stopped short of saying the SCLC should disband.
"They have chapters around the nation who hold the name SCLC and they are doing different kinds of work in their communities," King said. "They have an opportunity ... to decide and redefine how they want to be projected in the public."
King said she notified board leaders of her decision Thursday. Now, she said she is focusing on other endeavors.
This week, King launched a 100 Days of Nonviolence campaign at the Coretta Scott King Academy, named for her mother. The initiative is in response to the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., which claimed six lives and left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords seriously wounded.
She also plans to republish her mother's book, "My Life with Martin Luther King Jr.," and release the King matriarch's never-before published autobiography.
Young said Bernice King's departure from the organization was "wonderful."
"I tried to get Bernice to see when she wanted to revive it that it wasn't worth wasting her talents on, that we needed to let it go," Young said. "That doesn't mean that there's not work to be done."
In the span of roughly a decade, the SCLC under Martin Luther King Jr.'s leadership fought for equality and was the moral voice that spoke out against poverty, racism and war.
"It did its work well," Young said. "But it was never any law that said we all had to stay together for the rest of our lives. I don't believe in keeping organizations alive just for the sake of the name."
SCLC Chairwoman Sylvia Tucker said she was stunned by King's decision.
"We have to continue to move forward, because there's such a need out there," Tucker said. "Having a president doesn't determine what our mission is, to really take care of the least of these."
Tucker said she was not sure when a new president might be elected.
Bernice King's brother, Martin Luther King III, led the group from 1998 to 2003. At a press conference after her election, Bernice King said she was eager to rejuvenate the group.
But within weeks of her election, the SCLC was looking into allegations that its chairman and treasurer had mismanaged the organization's funds, throwing its board of directors into chaos as members chose sides. By the spring, the dispute over who controlled the SCLC was headed to court. The group had split into two factions, both claiming to be in charge and making decisions on behalf of the entire organization.
Bernice King led a prayer for unity within the group in August, calling for an end to the hard feelings. In September, a judge ruled that the directors siding with King were the group's legitimate leaders.
The former chairman, the Rev. Raleigh Trammell — the subject of the federal and internal probe — was indicted last week on charges including grand theft involving a meal program for low-income seniors in southwest Ohio.
The Rev. Markel Hutchins, who at one time claimed the presidency of the SCLC during the period of infighting, said Friday that the ongoing strife among the group has been about "the soul, future and integrity of the SCLC."
"We will fight like hell to reclaim the organization that has, at this moment, been stolen by those who have not been longtime participants in the struggle for human dignity," Hutchins said.
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