updated 7/31/2005 12:10:47 AM ET 2005-07-31T04:10:47

The civil rights group founded by Martin Luther King Jr. opened its five-day annual meeting Saturday, a year after the gathering was wracked by turmoil so intense that police had to be called to keep the peace.

As the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began its meeting, members said they had restored the group’s financial footing and planned to expand overseas in search of long-term stability.

President Charles Steele Jr. stressed the theme for this year’s convention: “A New Day and New Way.”

“We know where we came from, the history of our background. Most important, we’re being driven by the spirit of God,” he told a news conference.

Steele was joined by Birmingham civil rights leader and minister Abraham Lincoln Woods Jr., who said: “What’s important to me is that this represents a new beginning for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We have refocused ourselves.”

Last meeting anything but civil
A year ago, the group was struggling with internal disagreements and financial troubles. Its 2004 convention degenerated into a shouting match, requiring police to be called to keep the peace.

The SCLC is now on solid financial footing for the first time in years — thanks in part to its plan to open global conflict resolution centers based on King’s philosophy of nonviolent social change, Steele said in an earlier interview. He said centers already have opened in Dayton, Ohio, and Israel, and others are planned in China, Cuba, India and Italy.

The idea has resulted in corporate pledges and donations of more than $650,000, allowing the Atlanta-based organization to get current on all expenses and payroll just six months after lights at the group’s Atlanta headquarters were turned off for nonpayment, Steele said.

“We were on life support, but it didn’t die,” said Steele, a former Alabama state senator from Tuscaloosa.

Group on brink of bankruptcy
Steele took over the presidency in November at the board’s request after infighting and questionable management left the SCLC near bankruptcy and its leadership in despair. The full convention is expected to ratify his leadership at the annual gathering at the Hopewell Baptist Church.

“Things have settled down,” said Tyrone L. Brooks Sr., a Georgia state legislator and former SCLC staff member. “The SCLC family has been able to get refocused and remember why we were founded: To be a long-term activist organization.”

Steele said as many as 7,000 people are expected to attend the convention, which will include addresses by former King aide Jesse Jackson and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

The organization does not release membership figures, but its Internet site lists 75 chapters and affiliated organizations.

Formidable role in civil rights fight
Founded by King and two associates in 1957 to fight legalized segregation in the Jim Crow South, the SCLC helped organize some of the defining moments of the civil rights era, including the March on Washington in 1963 and the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march two years later.

But the SCLC seemed to lose its way as the decades passed.

Then-SCLC President Martin Luther King III quit in 2003 after feuding with board members including Chairman Claud Young. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who led protests in Birmingham in the 1950s and ’60s, took over as interim president.

Young and Shuttlesworth are out, and the King family is again warming to the SCLC, according to former President Joseph Lowery, who was also a co-founder. Martin Luther King III is scheduled to appear in Birmingham, along with his sister Bernice King.

“If they hadn’t changed directions, they were headed for disaster,” said Lowery, who was sued by the former board in a lawsuit that has since been dropped.

While U.S. blacks still face problems including poverty and racial injustice, Lowery said Steele’s idea of working abroad to help resolve conflicts dovetails perfectly with the work and vision of King, who won the Nobel Peace Price.

“The SCLC has been involved in foreign policy for a long time,” said Lowery, who will be honored with an award during the meeting. “We’ve always recognized the intricate relationship between domestic and foreign policy.”

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