With a standing history of service within the King Family enterprise including serving as President and CEO of the King Center, along with a background consisting of several political involvements, the Aug. 2011, election of Dr. King’s 49-year-old nephew, Isaac Newton Farris Jr., as the 8th SCLC president has been referred to as “a return to the family business,” and as “the thrust of young new leadership.”
Farris’s election comes however during a turbulent time in the civil rights organization’s history with the sudden unexpected passing of former SCLC President, Dr. Howard Creecy in late July. Creecy, who was applauded by many for his leadership, had just begun an aggresive course of rebranding and reinventing the declining SCLC, before his death just seven months into office.
Farris sat down recently with Atlanta-based reporter Arit Essien, at SCLC national headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia to discuss the current transitional climate of SCLC, his objectives for moving the organization forward and current societal issues.
Essien: You’ve been in office just over 30 days, how have the first 30 been days been for you transitioning into the role that your great friend and predecessor Dr. Creecy previously held?
Farris: It’s been a mix of exuberance but also sadness because I was pretty close to our former President Rev. Howard Creecy. I miss being around him, strategizing with him -but on the other hand I’m excited about the challenges that lie ahead of us and the opportunity that we have to remake SCLC, and to make it relevant for today.
Essien: TODAY is an acronym concerning the youth, correct?
Farris: It is…Which really I think cuts straight to where we are headed. We certainly have an emphasis on the youth because those are our future leaders; those are our future policy makers; those are our future voters; they’re our future tax payers. Most of the stuff that we’re dealing with impacts them, so they should be a part of it. That’s not to say that we don’t appreciate the veterans who have come before us and who are still with us and who provide us with a lot of support and wisdom.
Essien: What are some of the strategies that you will employ in engaging the youth?
Farris: We’re in the middle of a pretty aggressive campaign to establish college chapters, something that SCLC has never done before. I think it highlights where our focus really is. The youth are clearly a major part of everything we are trying to do. We also want to speak with them in their language about their concerns. Civil rights as it’s traditionally known is not necessarily one of their concerns. The youth of today, thanks to SCLC have grown up in integrated schools and in an integrated society, so their challenges are different.
Essien: What are the specific actions that will be taken to keep SCLC relevant today?
Farris: First of all poverty, because you really can’t have the beloved community that my Uncle spoke often about if you don’t have resources. And then education, which truly is a civil right issue of today. The reason it’s a civil rights issue of today is because education is becoming harder and harder for people to attain beyond the post secondary level -and we’re talking about hard working middle class families with two parents working in the home who are going about doing their jobs honestly and diligently everyday; and doing everything that society has asked them to do and still they don’t know how they’re going to be able to help their kids go to college. And then we have a political landscape that has to be addressed. We are living in a time right now where we have the political will to give the wealthy tax write-offs for the second vacation home that they don’t even live in year-round, but that same political will is not there to give that hard working family a tax write-off to help offset the expense of sending their kids to college or to any education institution for that fact. That’s where we’ve got to start –poverty and education and certainly we’ll always have to be engaged with policy makers.
Essien: What are your thoughts on helping to stop needless violence?
Farris: We’ve got to improve the economic climate. We’ve got to do our best to try to recapture what increasingly is looking like a lost generation of people of who have turned to a glamorized life of crime. I enjoy music just like everybody else and I buy it. At some point we’ve got to start taking some responsibility ourselves; we and society need to do our part to create an economy where people can have a fair shot to create the resources that they need to make it in life. We’ve also got to re-examine some of the things we are doing and influences we are allowing. Kids are coming up with a notion of, “Work hard and everything in the world will be possible.” That notion has disappearing to, “Strap up, go out and take it.” Our kids are being bombarded with that message everyday through rap music and pop culture. Me growing up, most people in my generation had parents who would spank them. The notion of calling DFCS or somebody never occurred to me. We’ve got a situation now that kids who are disciplined can actually call the government. Kids are very hip to that. We are losing a moral fiber and that does not mean that everyone has to be a priest or a nun. I do think faith in God is a good thing, but I’m not trying to make saints out of people. It starts with our politics, the non-caring environment and stuff happening at home. Once something goes mainstream it goes everywhere, so not only are black kids hearing such messages, but also white kids and its starting to effect them as well. I know that we working hard trying to do the right things for our family and sometimes it’s easy for us to leave the rearing of our kids to the TV or to the computer, or the school. We never got to get engaged. There’s a difference between discipline and abuse. My parents never balled their fist up at me. Also our business community has got to become more pro-family. We’ve got to be a little more flexible in how we deal with our workforce and the needs of our workforce. It’s just not the blame of the Tea Party, or government; it’s a complete package.
Essien: How about job creation? Bloomberg went so far to say riots would ensue if more jobs are not created. Where does SCLC stand on this issue?
Farris: We would not be a part of riots and certainly do not encourage rioting. We still do believe in nonviolent action. We certainly would try to be on the cutting edge to try to prevent emotions from gathering to that point. Times are hard for people out there and it’s exasperated. The thing that would cause us to be getting close to having riots is the climate that people are in, not just the jobless climate but the political climate in which there seems to be people that don’t care. I was watching the past Republican debates and you had people cheering over the amount of people who had been executed. You had people cheering when asked what if someone does not have insurance and needs help or they need medical attention? What are we to do with them? We had people talking about let them fend for themselves and essentially if that person wasn’t fortunate enough to have insurance then that’s the risk that they ran. The climate is not creating an environment where people at least see a little hope, and that’s usually when people get to the point of rioting. As my uncle used to say, “Violence is the voice of the voiceless, of the unheard,” and unfortunately our policy makers are sending a strong signal that they’re not hearing the average struggles that the average person is going through out there.
Essien: Stepping back from the aspect of violence, back to the economy and job creation…That is something that your Uncle strongly emphasized, what is the perspective of SCLC as far as the economy is concerned?
Farris: Here again that is a civil rights issue. It starts with education. When I say education that’s a pretty broad spectrum because it encompasses a lot of things, not merely the access which has to be addressed but we’ve also got to reexamine how we’re education our people and what we’re educating them for. The once thought to be traditional four-year liberal arts education might not be the move for everyone now because our society and needs have changed. Here in America, things have changed from an agricultural/manufacturing-based economy more towards mass-science and technological and those call for different skills. I quite frankly I don’t know if our educational system, as good as it is, is preparing the masses for that new reality. The goal for everyone might not be the Harvard or the Yales; community colleges have a large role to play here; technical colleges have a large role. Education certainly is the root and it cuts across all color lines, everyone is affected by that. We have college-degreed individuals walking around who cannot find work.
Essien: President Farris, over the next 12-months, give us a breakdown of the goals and objectives that you hope to put into place?
Farris: The first six months quite frankly are more internal. Our organization is coming out of a traumatic period and there are things that we need to address internally to make us more effective in today’s economy. There’s retooling and restructuring of our systems, our structure and how we do what we do. Simultaneously, it does not mean that we are limiting ourselves, but we have to have our house in order before we can help others to get the houses in order. The second phase, the next six months, will be more externally focused ramping up our campaign for the college chapters and strengthening our relationships with our current chapters throughout the nation; also integrating them more in our day-to-day work and strengthening our lines of communication so that we have a better sense of what happening on the ground in the various communities where we are. We are also rebuilding our board and there is a bit of enthusiasm out there; we’re seeing new members coming in so naturally we feel good about that. We also want to diversify our membership a bit more by reaching out in different communities. For example, just earlier in September, we signed an alliance with the Korean community. As I said, we are a human rights organization. While we do have the name Christian in our name, we are certainly not limiting ourselves to people of that persuasion.
Essien: What are your thoughts on the execution of Troy Davis?
Farris: First of all, it’s a real travesty of justice what happened to Troy Davis. Our legal standard is beyond reasonable and there certainly was doubt here. Two, once again we’ve got someone about to lose their life who really did not have the resources to adequately defend himself, some people might not understand that. Unfortunately for Troy, It was not until he got to the point of almost being executed that the world really focused in and the resources came forth. Georgia is a sate unlike other states and I admire the Governor of Illinois who stopped the process of execution completely. We’ve got a governor in Georgia that apparently does not have the conscience to stand up. We try to attack this by attacking the issue itself, and by trying to convince out policy makers. I personally do not believe in the death penalty. My grandmother was shot in church while she was praying the Lord’s Prayer. The guy was caught immediately and was convicted and sentenced to death; we intervened to stop that. I have a track record on this and it is close to my heart. Policy makers need to look at the fact that life is sacred and we need to be really really sure before we attempt to play God and take someone’s life. We need to relook at the way we are doing things and wehave the technology to do that now especially with the advances in investigative technology and DNA.
Essien: As the greatest civil rights organization of its kind in the world, what are SCLC’s present missions and objectives?
Farris: The mission and objective will never change. We are the voice of the voiceless. Unfortunately there’s been a misconception that we are the voice of the African-American. We are the voice of all humans who are voiceless; that’s Hispanic, that’s Christian, that’s Muslim, that’s Hindu, Jewish; that’s also people of different sexual orientations. We are the voice of the voiceless, and we will always be that. The only thing that’s changing is our goals. Primarily we have achieved most of our past goals. That’s not to say that there is no racism that still exists in our society; it does, but there is not racism that is institutionalized or legal sanction for racism. We are at the hearts and minds stages now. As great as an organization as we are; we are the greatest of our type in American history, but we’re not that great that we can get inside of people’s heads, all we can do, which we have done is create the environment for that to flourish. Our goals and our tactics will change, but our mission will never change.