SCLC President Finds His ‘Groove’ in Italy
By: George E. Curry
Originally posted 2/6/2007
(FIRST OF TWO PARTS)
TORINO, Italy (NNPA) – Unlike Stella, SCLC President Charles Steele Jr., didn’t have to travel to the Caribbean to get his groove back. Instead he came to this city in northwest Italy and got into a groove about how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s old organization can become a major player in solving personal and international conflicts.
Steele, president and CEO of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), knew he wanted to pick up where Dr. King left off when he was assassinated in 1968 but wasn’t exactly sure how.
“In his last year, Dr. King had taken on a more global vision,” Steele said. “We’re going to pick up where he left off.”
For the two years he has been head of SCLC, Steele began sketching a broad outline of what he wanted to accomplish: the establishments of conflict resolution centers in at least 25 countries, have Mississippi Valley State and Emory universities involved in creating courses and programs around nonviolence, work with ending police and school violence back in the United States and continuing the King legacy abroad.
After a round of talks with personal contacts and higher education officials here, Steele and his delegation decided to make an impromptu visit to a middle school named in honor of Dr. King. And although he didn’t know it when his bus pulled up, this was where he would get his groove back.
At the request of two journalists accompanying him on the trip, the former Alabama state senator posed for photographs in front of a plaque bearing the school’s name: “Scoula Elementare Statale M.L. King.” Word of a group of African-Americans spread quickly and before long there were repeated greetings of “helll-oh” as students pressed their smiling faces against the windows.
After an exchange of waves, the delegation, accompanied by a local tour guide, walked inside and met with the principal. Just the mention of Dr. King’s name – and the presence of one of his successors – transformed what had been an impromptu school visit into a festival of reunited friends.
The principal arranged for the delegation of about 15 people to visit an English class. As they waited to enter the room, Steele’s wife, Cathelean, a former school teacher, was deeply touched by the moment. She appeared close to tears and she hugged her husband. Inside, she would be even more moved by what she experienced.
There, students were already studying King’s life and were looking at a blow-up of an Italian newspaper with a large photograph of Rosa Parks desegregating the Montgomery, Ala. bus system. The page also carried a photograph of Dr. King at the March on Washington.
Speaking through an interpreter, SCLC President Steele told the students about his organization and the purpose of the trip. When Steele asked for questions, a 13-year-old student, speaking in perfect English, caught the delegation off guard.
“Has Dr. King’s Dream been realized?” asked Simone Cailone.
Delegates exchanged smiles and glances, marveling at the depth of the question. Steele carefully explained that part of King’s dream had been realized, but more progress is still needed.
At the end of the Q&A session, students shook hands with visitors, who appeared as excited as the students. A similar scene was repeated in the second classroom. By the time the visit ended, without speaking a word, everyone recognized that young people had to be the focus of any international conflict resolution effort.
Marvin Haire, Associate Director for Research and Publications at Mississippi Valley State University’s Delta Research & Culture Institute in Itta Bena, Miss., began a brain-storming session that proposed pairing Martin Luther King schools abroad with King schools in the U.S., allowing the students to become electronic pen pals and providing and providing opportunities for U.S. students to teach abroad.
Steele said SCLC has already adopted a King middle-school in New Orleans’ heavily-damaged 9th Ward and his first priority will be to link that school with the King school here. By next fall, Steele said, he hopes to lead a return delegation here to launch an international conflict resolution program at the King middle school.
“What really impressed me was the fact that we were here, in Torino, Italy, and to go into Martin Luther King Middle School was quite an awakening to me and a great experience, in terms of that excitement that the young people had,” Steele said later. “They were actually studying Dr. Martin Luther King without anticipating our arrival or coming to the school. Once they discovered who we were and what we represented, you could just feel the excitement.”
Torino, the first capital of Italy, hosted the 2006 Winter Olympics. Its young people have now given birth to a movement SCLC wants to duplicate around the globe.
“We’re going to go into Martin Luther King schools – grade schools, middle schools and high schools,” Steele said, still visibly moved by the visit. “Wherever there’s a Martin Luther King institution of learning, we’re committed to go around the world and establish conflict resolution centers.”
[NEXT WEEK: INSTITUTIONALIZING NONVIOLENCE]