The Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials gathers Thursday in Savannah for its annual summer conference with its reputation, and its future, in doubt.
Its leader, state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, is accused of defrauding it, and another charity, out of nearly $1 million in contributions over more than 10 years. The organization known as a required stop for up-and-coming Democratic candidates now is becoming better known as an alleged victim in a high-profile federal prosecution.
Brooks says he will be in Savannah for the conference, which means the man accused of stealing from it will still lead it. The question is, lead it to where?
“We are continuing as usual as an organization,” GABEO vice chairwoman Elaine Lucas said. “We have certain goals and objectives and one is information sharing and networking and that is what we are about and what this conference is about.
“We’re not going to allow anything from outside to infringe on those goals.”
They may not have a choice. Bob Holmes, a former state lawmaker and chairman emeritus of Clark Atlanta University’s Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy, said some organizations are strong enough to survive the loss of their leader. Ralph David Abernathy carried the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Holmes said.
Whether GABEO can survive, whether Brooks is exonerated or convicted, is uncertain, Holmes said. A conviction would likely mean prison time, and even a not-guilty verdict could leave a pall over the organization.
“There will be some kind of fallout because of the personal experience, personal relationships Tyrone developed that other people don’t have,” Holmes said.
GABEO has become the primary driver of attention to the unsolved 1946 lynching of two black couples at Moore’s Ford Bridge in Monroe. Brooks and others have claimed his investigation has uncovered evidence that federal employees were on the bridge in 1946 and that those connections have prompted federal authorities to prosecute him as retribution or to silence him.
At a news conference on Moore’s Ford Bridge recently, Brooks vowed that investigation would continue with or without him.
But GABEO’s influence and ability to effect change is likely to suffer as a result of Brooks’ indictment, others said. Maynard Eaton, a veteran journalist and public relations specialist who is now SCLC spokesman, said GABEO will find it difficult to raise money.
According to the indictment, some of Atlanta’s top corporate clients, including Coca-Cola and Georgia Power, gave money to GABEO over the years. Brooks is accused of using those contributions, among others, for personal expenses rather than GABEO’s programs.
Some of those corporate contributors might think again before contributing.
“It’s not like there were corporate riches pouring into civil rights,” Eaton said. “They dried up. This one will dry up even more.”
The indictment’s impact will affect other organizations, Eaton said.
“Whether he’s exonerated or not, it raises the spectre of what are these civil rights groups doing with our money,” he said. “That’s not always asked of other groups who are accused of mishandling funds. It comes back to haunt us even more. This, unfortunately, is hurting us today.”
Steve Anthony, a political scientist at Georgia State University, was a top aide to former Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen. He said GABEO has never been as powerful or influential as other civil rights groups, like SCLC. Because of that, Anthony said, the impact on GABEO now could be limited.
“The answer to that is what have they done up to now?” Anthony said. “It’s always been my impression that this was not a group that had a lot of political gravitas across the board.”
When Anthony served under Murphy, Democrats had a firm hand on state politics. If GABEO ever were to have been a major player, it would have been then. But, Anthony said, that wasn’t the case.
“The thing was run out of Tyrone’s legislative office in the [Coverdell] Legislative Office Building,” Anthony said. “GABEO is Tyrone.”