Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

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Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

Initially founded in January 1957 by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other young ministers who were active in local civil-rights protest efforts across the South, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) soon became the primary organization through which the southern black church made significant contributions to the black freedom struggle of the 1960s.

Viewed by many as simply the institutional reflection of King's individual role as the civil rights movement's principal symbolic leader, the SCLC in fact served a somewhat larger function. First, beginning in the late 1950s, the SCLC drew together southern ministers who believed that the black church had a responsibility to act in the political arena and who sought an organizational vehicle for coordinating their activism. Second, in the years after 1961, when SCLC possessed a significant full-time staff, the organization pulled together important protest campaigns in Birmingham (1963) and Selma, Alabama (1965). These campaigns brought the southern struggle to the forefront of national attention and helped win passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Third, between 1965 and 1968 the SCLC provided the means by which King extended his own national agenda for economic change to include protest campaigns in northern cities such as Chicago (1966) and Cleveland (1967), as well as supplying the institutional basis for the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.

Three principal influences shaped SCLC's founding. The first was the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955 and 1956, a successful local protest effort that brought King to national attention and made him the symbol of new black activism in the South. Second, young ministers in other cities seeking to emulate the Montgomery example launched bus protests in southern cities such as Birmingham, Tallahassee, New Orleans, and Atlanta, and sought a forum for exchanging ideas and experiences. Third, New Yorkbased civil rights activists Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and Stanley Levison, who already had helped garner northern funds and publicity for the Montgomery protest, began advocating the formation of a region-wide organization in the South that could spread the influence of Montgomery's mass movement and provide King a larger platform.

Initially labeled the "Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration" by King and Rustin, the conference met three times in 1957 before finally adopting Southern Christian Leadership Conference as its actual name. Seeking to avoid competition and conflict with the NAACP, SCLC chose to be composed not of individual members but of local organization "affiliates," such as civic leagues, ministerial alliances, and individual churches. Looking for a goal beyond that of desegregating city bus lines, King and the other ministers leading the conference (C. K. Steele of Tallahassee, Fred L. Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Joseph E. Lowery of Mobile, and Ralph D. Abernathy of Montgomery) focused on the right to vote and sought to develop a program, staff, and financial resources with which to pursue it. Until 1960, however, their efforts largely floundered, in part because of other demands upon King's time and energy, but also because of personnel problems and relatively meager finances.

The transformation of the SCLC into an aggressive, protest-oriented organization began in 1960 with King's own move from Montgomery to Atlanta and his appointment of the energetic Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker as SCLC's new executive director. The coupling of Walker's organizational skills with King's inspirational prowess as a speaker soon brought about a sevenfold expansion of SCLC's staff, budget, and program. While some staff members concentrated on voter registration efforts and citizenship training programs funded by northern foundations, Walker and King set out to design a frontal assault on southern segregation. Stymied initially in 1961 and 1962 in the southwest Georgia city of Albany, Walker and King chose the notorious segregation stronghold of Birmingham, Alabama, as their next target. In a series of aggressive demonstrations throughout April and May of 1963, the SCLC put the violent excesses of racist southern lawmen on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world. Civil rights rose as never before to the top of America's national agenda, and, within little more than a year's time, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 began fundamentally altering southern race relations.

Following King's much-heralded success at the 1963 March on Washington and his receipt of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, the SCLC repeated the Birmingham scenario with an even more successful protest campaign in early 1965 in Selma, focusing on the still widely denied right to register and vote. Out of that heavily publicized campaign emerged quick congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With King deeply convinced that the civil rights agenda required an expansion of the southern struggle into the North so as to directly confront nationwide issues of housing discrimination and inadequate education and jobs, the SCLC in early 1966 shifted much of its staff and energies to an intensive organizing campaign in Chicago. Although the "Chicago Freedom Movement" eventually garnered a negotiated accord with Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, promising new city efforts to root out racially biased housing practices, most observers (and some participants) adjudged the SCLC's Chicago campaign as less than successful.

Following limited 1967 efforts in both Cleveland and Louisville, the SCLC, at King's insistent behest, began planning a massive "Poor People's Campaign" aimed at forcing the country's political elite to confront the issue of poverty in the United States. Following King's assassination on April 4, 1968, however, the SCLC's efforts to proceed with the campaign were marred by widespread organizational confusion. Although the SCLC played an important role in a successful 1969 strike by hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina, the organization's resources and staff shrank precipitously in the years after King's death. Internal tensions surrounding King's designated successor, the Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy, as well as wider changes in the civil rights movement, both contributed significantly to the SCLC's decline. Only in the late 1970s, when another of the original founders, Joseph E. Lowery, assumed SCLC's presidency, did the conference regain organizational stability. But throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, SCLC continued to exist only as a faint shadow of the organization that had played such a crucially important role in the civil rights struggle between 1963 and 1968. In August 2004, Fred Shuttlesworth was elected president of the SCLC. One of his goals upon taking the position was to bring more young people into the organization.

See also Abernathy, Ralph David; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Lowery, Joseph E.; Montgomery, Ala., Bus Boycott; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Rustin, Bayard; Shuttlesworth, Fred L.


Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Morrow, 1986.

Manis, Andrew Michael. A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.

david j. garrow (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

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Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)