The Southern Christian Leadership Conference Foundation will no longer collect money for families of 26 slain Atlanta youths, after foster parents and absentee fathers sought to share in more than $100,000 in donations.
"At first, we were going to do it by need, but that didn't work," said the Rev. John D. Sharp, one of the administrators of the fund.All the families were essentially needy, he said. "Some of them are foster parents only, and that raised a question. And some are separated. Does that mean that the father, if he is absent, is entitled to anything? The question was raised."
The murders of the young blacks -- 22 children and four young adults -- have been highly publicized across the country, and have brought out both the best and the worst in the American character.
More than $1 million has been contributed to various funds. The donations are often accompanied by touching displays of sympathy for the families, like an enormous blue poster sent to Mayor Maynard Jackson by hundreds of students at Kalamazoo Central High School in western Michigan.
But money and notoriety are also there for the taking, and there have been takers.
The Committee to Stop the Children's Murders, formed by a group of mothers of murdered children, tried to raise money by selling candy. According to local investigators, the group was bilked by one of its own -- the Rev. Earl Carroll, a co-founder of the committee, who was arrested recently and charged with improper solicitation and bad checks among other charges.
The mayor's office says it has learned of bogus schemes to sell T-shirts and buttons commemorating the murders, as well as other operations like a phony post office box in New York where donations were sent and never heard from again.
"I had a guy call and say he wanted to sell buttons, and he told me he's give the city 30 percent of his sales," said Bryce Smith, a Jackson aide who keeps an eye out for possible fraud. "I told him I'd have him arrested."
Three of the mothers -- Camille Bell, Willie Mae Mathis and Venus Taylor, the officers of the mothers committee -- have traveled extensively to give speeches, including a trip to Washington last week to announce a Memorial Day rally to focus attention on the problems faced by low-income children.
Taylor said earlier this week that she is considering a defamation lawsuit against the FBI for a statement made by one of its agents, Mike Twibell, that "some of those kids were killed by their parents."
Representing her in the case, she said, would be controversial Memphis lawyer Mark Lane. Lane represented cult leader Jim Jones and defended the convicted killer of the Rev. Martin Luther King, among other clients.
Another person drawn to Atlanta was Roy Innis, embattled director of the Congress of Racial Equality. He called a press conference to announce that he believed he knew who the killer was and that if authorities did not arrest the man within 72 hours, he would. The special task force investigating the killings looked into the lead, and eventually dropped it. But in the meantime, Innis not only commandeered headlines but managed to stir false hopes in a panicked city.
"I hope all this is behind us soon," said Tyrone Brooks, a black state representative from Atlanta. "People must be saying, 'What in the devil are those black people in Atlanta doing? Why does everybody have to be out raising money?'"
The money arrives from concerned people around the country, most unsolicited. the city government asked $100,000 for a reward fund, and after meeting that goal announced it would request no further contributions. But as of last week, $883,864 had been received over the reward money to go toward investigation of the killings.
A lump-sum payment of $1,200 from the SCLC foundation was made to each of the families a month ago, Sharp said. "Nobody was going to get rich off this thing," he added.
But some Atlantans raised the question of whether there should be direct payments at all to the mothers. "Once we bury the children, take care of the funeral expenses, I don't think we need to pay the families," Brooks said. "We have children dying in leukemia in this city, for example, but nobody's rushing to say here's some money to tide you over. We should be concerned about the children in general."
Brooks and a group of political leaders, including State Sen. Julian Bond, stood on the steps of city hall March 25 and asked that no more money be sent directly to the families. Brooks is bitter toward the most vocal of the mothers, who he says "have tried to make the community feel we owe them something because they have tragedy."
"Those questions have been raised, and legitimately so," said Smith, the aide to Mayor Jackson in charge of an office set up to handle incoming donations and to sound the alarm for possible fraud. "My heart bleeds for every parent. But the city has a legal and moral responsibility to look toward a greater need."
Economic Opportunity Atlanta, a development agency, recently established the Atlanta Children's Foundation to fund recreation and safety programs for all low-income Atlanta youths. The city now recommends that anyone wanting to make a donation send it to the foundation.