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A long-simmering rift within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference landed in court last week when the Atlanta-based civil rights organization filed suit against the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who led the organization for two decades. In addition to allegations against Lowery, the suit accuses an affiliated organization led by Lowery’s wife, Evelyn G. Lowery, of fraud. The dispute between the SCLC board of directors and its women’s division, called SCLC/Women’s Organizational Movement for Equality Now Inc., centers around the status of the women’s group as a separate incorporated entity that nonetheless uses the SCLC’s name — as well as the likeness of the organization’s first president, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — in its fund raising. The actions of the women’s organization constitute a “fraud” and a “tort” under which damages may be collected, lawyers for the SCLC wrote in the complaint. The SCLC board is asking for an accounting of “sums collected” by the women’s group where the SCLC’s name and emblem have been used in fund raising. Thus far, the women’s group has provided no information. In addition, the suit says Lowery “consciously and intentionally” breached his fiduciary duties while president of the SCLC by entering into a lease agreement in October 1994. In that agreement, the women’s division rented office space owned by the SCLC for $1 a year. The lease was executed by Lowery without the authorization of the SCLC board, the suit says. The SCLC board wants to rescind the lease and hold Lowery and the women’s organization liable for punitive as well as general and nominal damages. Southern Christian Leadership Conference v. S.C.L.C./Women’s Organizational Movement for Equality Now, No. 2004CV84186 (Fult. Super. filed April 8, 2004). SUIT CALLED ‘A TERRIBLE INJUSTICE’ This is the second time the SCLC has filed suit against Lowery and the women’s division in Fulton County Superior Court. Last September, the SCLC made similar allegations against its former president and the women’s division but dismissed the case three weeks later. State Rep. Tyrone L. Brooks Sr., D-Atlanta, characterized the legal action as “nothing but petty politics.” Brooks heads an SCLC affiliate organization called the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. “It’s a terrible injustice against the family of SCLC to see the national office file litigation … against the SCLC women,” said Brooks, who worked as the SCLC’s national field director before being elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1980. “This is not an issue for litigation. This is an issue for mediation and negotiation.” Brooks said the other case was dismissed in a bid to work out the conflicts in private. “The thing we were hoping for was to avoid a call from someone like you, a reporter,” he said. The attorney representing the SCLC, Conyers sole practitioner Samuel C. Henry, referred questions to Dr. Claud R. Young, chairman of the SCLC board. Young, a physician in Detroit, did not respond to a request for an interview. Messages left for Joseph Lowery at his home and Evelyn Lowery at the offices of the SCLC women’s division were not returned. In a brief phone interview from his church in Avondale, Ohio, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, the SCLC’s interim president, said he hopes to settle the case quickly. Beyond that, he did not want to discuss the suit. “I’m not in a position to make [a] comment,” he said. The vice chairman of the SCLC board, the Rev. Raleigh Trammell of Central Missionary Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, also declined an interview request. The Rev. E. Randel T. Osburn, the SCLC executive vice president, did not respond to an e-mail request for an interview, and the SCLC director of programs and administration, Ron Woods, never returned a phone message. Carolyn Young, wife of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and chief financial officer for the SCLC women’s group, did not return a phone message seeking comment. Dorothy Patton, who is listed as secretary on the Secretary of State’s listing of corporate officers for the SCLC women’s division, referred questions to Evelyn Lowery. HISTORIC BEGINNINGS The Southern Christian Leadership Conference grew out of the Montgomery bus boycott that began in December 1955. The boycott spread to other Southern cities, and, in 1957, organizers of the civil rights protests formed the Southern Leadership Conference and chose King as president. Later that year, the group adopted its current name at a conference in Montgomery. King continued to lead the organization until his death in April 1968. Following King’s assassination, the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy Jr. took the reins and remained in charge until he stepped down to run for Congress in 1977. Lowery then became president and led the organization until his retirement in January 1998. CORPORATE STATUS AT ISSUE The suit filed this week said Lowery retired “in part, due to his failure to be accountable to the SCLC’s board of directors” and his “failure to take action or cause an accounting to be had for the activities” of the women’s division. Lowery’s wife founded the women’s group in January 1979 as a division of SCLC. According to the suit, the women’s group was to be accountable to the SCLC in its policies, programs and finances. However, in October 1989, the women’s division incorporated in Georgia without the knowledge or approval of the SCLC board, the suit says. Afterward, the women’s group continued to use “the name, initials and emblem” of SCLC without the board’s approval. To that end, the suit claims the women’s group benefited by representing to the public “an affiliation with SCLC in an effort to raise funds, acquire donations, to obtain grants and for other purposes.” $1 LEASE AGREEMENT Five years after the women’s group incorporated, Lowery and his wife entered into a lease agreement on behalf of their respective organizations. The lease allowed the women’s group to rent an SCLC-owned office at 328 Auburn Ave. for $1 a year. The SCLC board never knew about the lease agreement, but in 1996, it convened a special committee to discuss Lowery’s handling of the organization’s affairs and his “refusal to be accountable to the board of directors,” according to the suit. The special committee also investigated conflicts between the SCLC and the women’s division, including the unauthorized incorporation and the disputed fund raising. As a result of the investigation, the SCLC board asked Joseph and Evelyn Lowery to produce “corporate minutes, budgets, bank account records and other documents” from the women’s division for the preceding five years. The women’s organization then “refused to account for its activities,” according to the suit. In June 1998, the new president of the SCLC, Martin Luther King III, met with Evelyn Lowery to mend the dispute and convince the women’s group to resume its role as a division of SCLC by relinquishing its corporate status. Evelyn Lowery agreed to bring the request to her organization’s board, the suit says. However, when five months passed with no response, Trammell, the Ohio minister who is vice chairman of the SCLC board and served as chairman of the SCLC’s special committee, wrote a letter to Evelyn Lowery demanding that the women’s organization relinquish its corporate status. She wrote back to Trammell, saying the women’s organization was “a support group dedicated to and operating within the mandates, policies, guidelines and programs of SCLC.” She did not address the issue of the group’s corporate status. After a subsequent meeting in March 1999, the SCLC said the women’s organization “made it clear that it would not dissolve its corporation or account for its activities to the SCLC board of directors.” The suit mentions no further events following the 1999 meeting. Martin Luther King III remained president of the SCLC until this past January when he took over for his brother, Dexter Scott King, as president and chief executive officer of The King Center in Atlanta. Martin Luther King III was not available for an interview. Brooks said that with King gone from the organization, the SCLC is unlikely to dismiss the latest suit. But neither the Lowerys nor the SCLC needs to have their arguments aired in public, he said. “I hate to see these two wonderful people in the twilight of their years be hit with litigation, which can only cause more pain and sorrow throughout the whole SCLC family,” he said.

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