Southern Christian Leadership Conference

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Southern Christian Leadership Conference

In 1957 a group of young southern ministers formed an organization in Atlanta, Georgia , called the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration. These ministers shared a belief that the black church should play an important role in the African American civil rights movement . They created a coalition—a combination of different organizations in one overall structure—comprised of local civil rights organizations and churches. The group's name soon changed to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The new organization was led by civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) and Joseph Lowery (1921–). King, already one of the nation's most famous civil rights activists due to his role in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 in Alabama , gave the organization immediate renown. He would head the SCLC until his assassination in

1968, and for many Americans the SCLC was “his” organization. Lowery was SCLC's president from 1977 to 1997.

Goals and methods

Montgomery's bus boycott had convinced SCLC founders that a mass protest movement could desegregate (stop policies and laws that separated black and white people in public places) the South. The boycott, a year-long nonviolent campaign in which blacks refused to ride the segregated buses, had resulted in a Supreme Court order to end bus segregation in Montgomery. As the SCLC established its purpose in the wake of this success, some of its immediate aims were: to register black voters and obtain political representation in local and national government; to draw national attention to the plight of southern blacks; and to pressure the federal government to step in and protect the constitutional rights of blacks.

From the start the SCLC was built on a philosophy of nonviolent direct action (see Civil Disobedience ) based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and Indian political leader Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948). King repeatedly emphasized active nonviolence to members of SCLC. Protesters were trained not to inflict physical harm on others. King warned that those who wished to join in nonviolent action might be beaten, humiliated, insulted, or arrested, but they were never to strike or even insult those who tried to harm them. The fight was between justice and injustice, not individual people.

Early accomplishments

In 1960 SCLC helped create a student civil rights organization, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), from the emerging sitin movement . SNCC went on to become one of the most active nonviolent protest civil rights organizations in the early 1960s.

In late 1961 SCLC began desegregation campaigns in Albany, Georgia. Their work there was met with violence in August 1962, when members of the Ku Klux Klan (a secret white supremacist society known for its methods of intimidation and terrorism against minority groups) burned Albany's black churches. In 1963 SCLC undertook a long and dangerous protest campaign in highly segregated Birmingham, Alabama (see Birmingham Protests ), calling for desegregation and economic justice.

Also in 1963 the SCLC helped promote the civil rights March on Washington , the largest demonstration for human rights the country had ever seen. At the march King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, electrifying his huge audience of a quarter of a million people with one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history. In 1965 King, as head of the SCLC, led a march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery to extend voting rights to black Americans. Black marchers in the first attempt at this march, later known as “Bloody Sunday,” were attacked by state and local police, stopping the march. The televised scenes of violence brought about strong national support for black voting rights.

The most concrete rewards for the SCLC's campaigns came when the federal government finally lent its support to the civil rights movement with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act . Though these acts did not reach as far as hoped, they set significant milestones in desegregation and voting rights, particularly in the South.

After 1968

By 1968 there were strong divisions within the civil rights movement between those advocating nonviolent action and those who called for a more combative struggle. The SCLC suffered from the conflicts, losing membership and focus. King led his organization as before, using nonviolent methods and basing actions on religious beliefs. But before his death King's emphasis had changed from strictly African American civil rights to economic reform. His interests were drawn to poverty, the plight of blacks in northern cities, and the lot of low-income workers everywhere. His strong opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1954–75) blurred the focus of the SCLC from its once solid concentration on the civil rights of African Americans.

When King was assassinated in 1968, the SCLC maintained its philosophy of nonviolent social change but it no longer initiated large-scale national actions. Longtime civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy (1926–1990), who succeeded King as head of the SCLC, directed the organization's efforts in the Poor People's Campaign. This project focused national attention on the needs of poor people in the United States, especially food aid and low-income housing. Without King, though, the campaign failed to win public support.

Following the Poor People's Campaign, the SCLC went into a steady decline. Today, though rarely in the public eye, the SCLC continues to organize, educate, and register voters in the southern United States. The SCLC also focuses on problems within the black community, including crime and drug abuse.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

views updated May 18 2018


As a principal organization of the civil rights movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) championed the use of nonviolent direct action to end legal and social discrimination against African Americans. Identified strongly with its original leader, the Reverend martin luther king jr., the SCLC organized and sponsored many protest marches and demonstrations during the late 1950s and the 1960s. Although the group's influence declined after King's assassination in 1968, the SCLC continues to work for the betterment of the lives of African Americans.

The SCLC emerged in the wake of a successful boycott of buses in Montgomery, Alabama, by the city's black citizens in 1955, which had led to a December 1956 Supreme Court ruling upholding the desegregation of those buses (Gayle v. Browder, 352 U.S. 903, 77 S. Ct. 145, 1 L. Ed. 2d 114). Prodded by African American social activist Bayard Rustin, who hoped to carry the Montgomery victory to the rest of the South, King and other clerics formed the Southern Negro Leaders Conference, forerunner of the SCLC, during a meeting in Atlanta in January 1957. King—who had gained national renown through his role as head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organizer of the bus boycott—was a natural choice to lead the group. Other early SCLC leaders included the Reverends Ralph D. Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth. Later in 1957, the group changed its name to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The SCLC hoped to initiate Gandhian, nonviolent direct action throughout the South. It hoped that such action would secure racial desegregation, voting rights, and other gains for African Americans. Through this approach, the SCLC sought to take the civil rights cause out of the courtroom and into the community, hoping to negotiate directly with whites for social change. As one of its first actions, the group led the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., which drew an estimated twenty-five thousand people. In 1959, it organized a youth march on Washington, D.C., that attracted forty thousand people.

Despite these successful marches, the SCLC was hampered by disorganization during its early years. It experienced difficulty in meeting many of its major goals during the late 1950s, particularly in voter registration. It charted a new course in the early 1960s, when it recruited leaders such as the Reverends Wyatt T. Walker and Andrew J. Young. Between 1960 and 1964, the number of full-time SCLC staff members grew from five to sixty, and the organization's effect on the civil rights movement reached its zenith.

The SCLC's growth allowed it to coordinate historic demonstrations that played a vital role in the civil rights movement. In April 1963, the SCLC led protests and boycotts in Birmingham, Alabama, that prompted violent police repression. Television viewers around the United States were shocked at the violence they saw directed at the clearly peaceful demonstrators. The SCLC won the sympathy of the nation again in a difficult 1965 civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, which also drew a violent response from whites. These protests are widely credited with hastening the passage of the civil rights act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000a et seq.) and the voting rights act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.), laws that granted African Americans many of the gains they had been seeking.

By the mid-1960s, other African Americans began to question whether nonviolent direct action could achieve significant changes for their communities. More radical civil rights groups, notably the student nonviolent coordinating committee and the congress of racial equality, publicly renounced the nonviolent approach of the SCLC. They pointed to the poverty and de facto (actual) segregation experienced by African Americans in the northern cities, and argued that the SCLC's tactics were ineffective in the urban ghetto.

King and the SCLC were sensitive to such criticism, and increasingly began to focus their attention on the North. By 1967, the SCLC launched several new operations there: the Chicago Freedom Movement, Operation Bread-basket, and the Poor People's Campaign. It brought in young, new leaders, including a divinity student named jesse jackson, to lead these efforts.

The SCLC suffered a staggering setback when King was assassinated in April 1968. The group had always been closely identified with the charismatic preacher, and his death cost it the vital leadership, publicity, and fund-raising he had provided. Abernathy became president of the organization. By 1972, the staff had declined to twenty and leaders such as Young and Jackson had moved on to other pursuits.

Joseph E. Lowery succeeded Abernathy as president of the SCLC in 1977. The Atlanta-based group has continued to work for the improvement of the lives of African Americans through leadership training and citizen education. It has also created campaigns to battle drug abuse and crime.

further readings

Blumberg, Rhoda Lois. 1991. Civil Rights: The 1960s Freedom Struggle. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne.

Fairclough, Adam. 2001. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King Jr. Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press.

——. 1989. "The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Second Reconstruction, 1957–1973." In We Shall Overcome. Edited by David J. Garrow. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson.

Ford, Linda G. 1992. "Southern Christian Leadership Conference." In Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights. Edited by Charles D. Lowery. San Diego: Greenwood Press.

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

Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Available online at <> (accessed February 10, 2004).


Integration; Jim Crow Laws; NAACP; Parks, Rosa Louise McCauley.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

views updated May 29 2018

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is one of the most important organizations to emerge out of the modern civil rights movement. An interdenominational alliance of activist clergymen, the SCLC drew upon and extended the institutional power base already present in the black church. The SCLC became the main organizational vehicle by which isolated instances of resistance against Jim Crow segregation were coordinated into a mass movement spanning the South. With the motto "To Save the Soul of America," the SCLC was committed to the philosophy of nonviolence in exercising the moral imperative to oppose unjust laws.

Founded in 1957 by a group of ministers, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) as its first president, the SCLC developed out of the successful Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955–1956. The SCLC was also instrumental in establishing affiliated organizations, one of which was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Founded in 1960 through the direct efforts of then acting executive director Ella J. Baker (1905–) and based primarily in black colleges and universities rather than in churches, the SNCC became the main organizational vehicle mobilizing student protest efforts across the South.

Between 1960 and 1965 the SCLC and SNCC, in concert with other organizations, gave the movement some of its greatest successes. The sit-ins (1960) and freedom rides (1961) helped integrate public facilities and interstate transportation; the SCLC's Operation Breadbasket boycotted certain businesses "not" operating in black communities for better job opportunities; the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, demonstration led to the March on Washington that same year, during which Dr. King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech; and passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) were particularly meaningful for the movement and for the SCLC as its leading organization.

After these major successes, the SCLC's attention began to shift to the plight of blacks in northern cities. Rev. Jesse Jackson (1941–) came to prominence during this time as director of Chicago's Operation Breadbasket. It was also during this period of transition that the growing Black Power movement, rejecting the principle of nonviolence, began to challenge the authoritative position of the SCLC. With Dr. King's assassination on April 4, 1968, Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy (1926–1990) became president of the SCLC. In 1977, when he stepped down, Rev. Joseph Lowery (1924–) took over leadership and remained as president until his retirement in 1997. At that time Martin Luther King III became the fourth president of the historic organization. Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, remains on the board of directors.

In the decades since the civil rights movement, the SCLC has concentrated on maintaining those gains made earlier, continuing the struggle for the rights of the poor and the homeless, and keeping alive the legacy of Dr. King. Recent actions have included lobbying for congressional extension of the Voting Rights Act (1982), a march in support of establishment of the King national holiday (1983), protests against apartheid in South Africa, gun buy-back campaigns to help curb inner-city violence, and AIDS awareness and mentoring programs. The SCLC remains a politically engaged organization, working hard to continue the struggle for human rights and to realize Dr. King's dream.

See alsoCivil Rights Movement; Jackson, Jesse; King, Martin Luther, Jr.


Blumberg, Rhoda Lois. Civil Rights: The 1960s FreedomStruggle, rev. ed. 1991.

Chappell, Kevin. "A New King." Ebony 3, no. 3 (1998): 124, 126, 128, 138.

"Dayton the SCLC Hold Gun Buy Back Campaign." Jet 84 (7) (1993): 34–35. Author anonymous.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact ofBlack Women on Race and Sex in America. 1984.

Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. The BlackChurch in the African American Experience. 1990.

"Martin Luther King III Named to Lead the SCLC." Jet 93 (26) (1997): 4–5. Author anonymous.

Morris, Aldon. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement:Black Communities Organizing for Change. 1984.

Peake, Thomas R. Keeping the Dream Alive: A History ofthe Southern Christian Leadership Conference from Kingto the Nineteen-Eighties. 1987.

Milmon F. Harrison

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

views updated May 29 2018


SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE. Led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was the first major civil rights organization to originate in the South and was one of the guiding forces behind the black freedom struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. The SCLC brought the black church into the forefront of the civil rights movement and helped popularize the tactic of massive nonviolent protest.

The SCLC was founded in early 1957. King and two associates, the Reverend Charles K. Steele and the Reverend Fred L. Shuttles worth, recognized the need to capitalize on the momentum generated by the Montgomery bus boycott of the previous year and called a meeting of black preachers to found the organization. Although the SCLC made little headway in its first few years, in 1960 the spreading sit-in movement among college students energized the organization. The SCLC sponsored the meeting of student protestors that led to the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In 1961, King and the SCLC played a role in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation on interstate buses. In 1963 and 1964, the SCLC joined other civil rights organizations in a major project designed to register rural black Mississippians to vote.

The organization was best known, however, for a series of demonstrations it staged in southern cities in an attempt to combat segregation and disfranchisement by focusing national and international attention on the region's Jim Crow practices. The SCLC's 1963 campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, provoked a violent police reaction that aroused the conscience of many white Americans and put international pressure on President John F. Kennedy to act decisively on civil rights. The bill President Kennedy delivered to Congress that June formed the basis of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1965, King and the SCLC launched a campaign of marches and demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, that eventually contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, King and the SCLC increasingly turned their attention to creating an interracial alliance of the poor and oppressed. They worked to win housing desegregation and jobs for blacks in Chicago, and to organize a Poor People's March in Washington, D.C., in April 1968. The SCLC, however, faced growing opposition from young blacks, who were increasingly frustrated with the organization's willingness to compromise with whites and with its nonviolent tactics. At the same time, King's outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam infuriated President Johnson and lost the SCLC the support of some wealthy and influential white liberals. After King's assassination in 1968, the organization was wracked by internal division and lost its preeminent place in the black freedom struggle. The SCLC continues to fight for civil rights.


Marable, Manning. Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945–1990. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954–1992. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965. New York: Viking, 1987.


See alsoCivil Rights Movement ; Jim Crow Laws ; Voting Rights Act of 1965 .

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Southern Christian Leadership Conference