ATLANTA — The Rev. Bernice King has been chosen as the first woman to head the civil rights organization co-founded by her father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference Interim President Byron Clay called King and said she accepted the position.
"She is excited," Clay told reporters. "I am excited. The nation will be excited."
The other candidate was Judge Wendell Griffen of Little Rock, Ark. He was the first black attorney to work for a major Arkansas law firm and is an ordained minister and pastor of New Millennium Church.
Chairman Raleigh Trammell of Dayton, Ohio, called King a "dynamite person with a great personality and a great heart."
"The national organization has done itself well to elect the daughter of Dr. King to lead the organization during this time," Trammell said. "She seems to have renewed her commitment to the ideas and legacy of her father ... There was a time that she was not as interested in the movement, but she talked to us about going back and reading her father's books and studying her father's message."
Martin Luther King Jr. was the SCLC's first president, serving from 1957 until his death in 1968. His eldest son, Martin Luther King III, was president from 1998 to 2003.
Bernice King inherits an SCLC and issues much changed from the days of her father's leadership. And she will have to work to rebuild the organization, which has stumbled in recent years.
"She can hearken back to her father's legacy, but she's going to have to redefine it," said Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie. "She now, as his child, is going to have to figure out a way to push that legacy forward so we don't perpetuate a stagnant, chauvinistic civil rights agenda."
Internal bickering has overshadowed signs of progress for SCLC that included paying off millions in debt and opening a $3 million headquarters in Atlanta. A former state director in Florida accused several national leaders of financial mismanagement and the president of the Los Angeles chapter last fall clashed with leadership over his support for gay marriage in California.
The Rev. Eric Lee, the Los Angeles chapter president, said in a statement Friday that he hopes King will follow her parents' example with respect to the rights of lesbians, gays and transgender people.
"We know that her mother, Coretta Scott King, was supportive of LGBT equality, and we believe that Dr. King would have been as well," Lee said. "My hope is that her election is a sign that SCLC is returning to its spirit of equality for all people."
Woman in charge
Today, SCLC has roughly 10,000 members and nearly 80 chapters in 17 states from Georgia to California. The group has also opened a nonviolent conflict resolution center in Israel, with plans to open 10 international sites in 10 years.
Charles Steele of Alabama resigned as president on Jan. 31 and still works with the group as a conflict resolution consultant. Clay has served as interim president since February. It is not yet known when he will step down and King will take over as president.
Steele said King is committed to the movement.
"She has the charisma, she's articulate, she has the wherewithal, she has the intelligence," Steele said in a telephone interview on Friday. "She's Dr. King's daughter and she's always been sensitive to the needs of others."
At 46, King is younger than many of SCLC's members and much of its leadership.
Trammell said having a woman in charge is exciting for SCLC.
"Women are moving to the forefront, and we want to be a part of that," he said. "We, too, recognize the skills and talents that women's leadership can bring."
Bernice King and her brother Martin spent much of the past year in a legal battle with their brother, Dexter King, over control of their father's estate. Earlier this month, the siblings agreed to appoint a temporary custodian to handle the affairs of King, Inc., while the three of them focused on mending their relationship.
Trammell said the board was aware of the family feud, but did not focus much on it when considering King for the position.
"All of us wanted that to be resolved," he said. "But that's all past. We got a new president, we're ready to work and get busy."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.