WASHINGTON – Four decades after its establishment, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (search), which played a pivotal role in winning equal status for African Americans in the 1960s, is struggling to survive.
Its biggest enemy, according to its former president, is no longer the external force of racism.
"The problem now is that we're being destroyed or taken over, I guess, by inside forces," said retired president Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (search), an 82-year-old veteran of the civil rights movement.
Shuttlesworth resigned this month as president of the SCLC. Others say he was forced out after a series of heated exchanges with other organization leaders.
The infighting at this year's SCLC national convention in Florida got so intense, police were called in, an irony not lost on Shuttlesworth.
"You can't preach nonviolence outside and live violently inside. That's a contradiction," he said.
Charles Steele Jr., the current SCLC president, called the conflict a disagreement among family members, but former officials say the problems go beyond mere quarrels. Officials say membership is now a fraction of the tens of thousands who belonged in the organization's heyday, when the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (search) gave the group direction and purpose.
Many current members fail to pay their dues. SCLC's biggest source of revenue, a glossy, ad-filled magazine, has been stripped of its nonprofit status, causing the organization to amass thousands of dollars in unpaid back taxes.
Nevertheless, Steele insists the civil rights group has a bright future.
"We're going to take to the streets. We will fill up the jails. I'm not afraid to go to jail -- I want you to realize that -- if it's for a just cause," Steele said.
Critics say that sort of talk is a throwback to the struggles of the past, when the SCLC was fighting racial injustice.
"They need to redefine themselves," said Charles Jones, chairman of the Department of African American Studies at Georgia State University.
Jones says the SCLC should focus on problem-solving within the African American community -- on issues ranging from healthcare to homelessness.
"People are going to gravitate to an organization they perceive as meeting their needs. And, unfortunately, SCLC has not done that as of late," Jones said.
Ralph David Abernathy III, the son of one of the SCLC's co-founders, agrees.
"The question is not whether or not we need to be free. The question is how do we become a productive and uplifting community at large now that we have equality," Abernathy said.
Abernathy said the SCLC is too precious to abandon, given its rich history of accomplishments. But critics say if it is to remain relevant, it can no longer live in the past.
Click on the box at the top of this story to watch a report by FOX News' Jonathan Serrie.