In January 1957, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and a group of African American clergymen and other activists from all over the South gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, to develop
ways in which the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling desegregating bus systems in the South could be tested. At this meeting, the men decided to form the Southern Leaders Conference, which
later in August of 1957 would become known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). These men hoped that the
SCLC would become a permanent organization that would facilitate and coordinate nonviolent protest efforts of local groups.
Initially, the group had two objectives: to use nonviolent protest as a method of resistance to discrimination and to appeal
to the moral conscience of white America.
The organization's first order of business was to develop a plan of action and definitive guiding principles. The plan of action declared that civil rights were essential to democracy and that segregation must end in the United States, and it urged African Americans to reject segregation through nonviolent means. In February 1957, the group met in New Orleans, Louisiana, to organize further. At this working meeting, the organization established an executive board of directors and elected officers. King was elected as president; Ralph David Abernathy of Montgomery, Alabama, as financial secretary-treasurer; C. K. Steele of Tallahassee, Florida, as vice president; T. J. Jemison of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as secretary; and attorney I. M. Augustine of New Orleans as general counsel.
The group's first convention was held in August 1957 in Montgomery, where members discussed ways to implement its plan of action and affect U.S. public policy on discrimination and segregation. At this meeting, the members debated topics such as the adoption of nonviolent mass action as the cornerstone of its strategy and the affiliation of local community organizations throughout the South with the SCLC. Chief among these discussions was the decision to open the SCLC movement to all, regardless of race, religion, or background. The SCLC primarily recruited members from African American churches and other African American interest groups. In fact, the SCLC was recognized by some as the political wing of the African American church. In addition to Abernathy, early key SCLC figures in Alabama include Harold Middlebrook of Selma, Albert Turner of Lowndes County, Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, John Lewis of Brundidge, and Joseph Lowery of Mobile. In 1960, King resigned as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and moved back to Atlanta, his hometown, so that he could devote his full attention to the SCLC and its efforts.
In Alabama, the organization had two major operations: "Project Alabama" and "Project Confrontation." Project Alabama, the brainchild of James Bevel, consisted of a series of demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts in targeted cities (Birmingham, Anniston, Montgomery, and Selma). In Montgomery, the SCLC partnered with the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to challenge the segregated school system. MIA board member Johnnie Carr retained Attorney Fred Gray and filed suit on behalf of her son Arlam. Later, the relationship between the SCLC and MIA cooled when MIA complained that SCLC members were not showing enough respect to MIA members and the SCLC charged that MIA had grown too complacent.
Project Confrontation, or Project C as it was commonly known, was originated by Fred Shuttlesworth and was first based in Birmingham. The Project C strategy centered on staged sit-ins and the release of a document called the Birmingham Manifesto. In April 1963, Project C's plan called for King to get arrested on Good Friday during a direct-protest action in Birmingham, which they believed would bring national media attention. King was indeed arrested and placed in solitary confinement. While in jail, King read an editorial in the Birmingham newspaper that had been submitted by several white clergy criticizing the SCLC's tactics. In response, King penned his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
After the gains of Project C, the SCLC made a major change it its strategy—called "D Day"— that incorporated children into the demonstrations. The organization decided to use children because the adults were suffering economic threats and reprisals from their employers. SCLC leaders reasoned that the possible jailing of children was more dramatic. They also reasoned that jails filled with children would generate massive negative publicity and put pressure on the Birmingham city government. When Birmingham police chief Eugene "Bull" Connor ordered firefighters to use fire hoses and the police to use dogs on the children, the photos and film of this horrific incident were broadcast on national and international news, shocking the world. The public outcry quickly led city leaders and businesspeople to integrate department stores and hire more African Americans in city government.
Arguably the most noted work of the SCLC in Alabama was its role in securing voter rights for African Americans through its voter rights project in Selma, launched in 1965. At this time less than three percent of African Americans in Dallas County were registered to vote. Initially, SCLC was invited by two local organizations, the Dallas County Voters League and the Dallas County Improvement Association, to assist in increasing the number of African Americans on the voter rolls in the county. These groups also hoped that the involvement of Martin Luther King Jr. would attract national media attention. The SCLC strategy in Selma included "Freedom Days" that consisted of local residents attempting to register to vote to highlight the blatant discrimination. In February 1965, King was arrested at the Dallas County Courthouse and again penned a letter from jail, which he hoped would help gain support for voter rights legislation.
The organization played a major role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Members also participated in the now famous Selma to Montgomery march that ended initially in the Bloody Sunday attack on the marchers and motivated President Lyndon Johnson to send federal voter registrars to places such as Selma. These efforts were instrumental in raising awareness of and support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
By the latter half of the 1960s, tensions were rising between the SCLC and its affiliated student groups, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the (CORE). Many SNCC members split off to organize the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and subscribed to a more confrontational Black Nationalist approach to civil rights. Amid calls for "Black Power," King and the SCLC were criticized by these younger groups for being too moderate and overly dependent on the support of white liberals. By contrast, Black Nationalism hinged on the philosophy of black pride and black economic, political, and social independence from white society.
Over the next few years until his death in 1968, King focused the SCLC's efforts on desegregation in a number of American cities, with notable efforts occurring in St. Augustine, Florida, and Albany, Georgia. King and the organization focused on economic inequality, poverty, and the plight of the poor in urban settings. King also believed that the strategies developed in the South could be applied in northern cities and bring attention to racial discrimination in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York. The SCLC helped organize these efforts.
The strategy for northern cities largely consisted of three operations: the Chicago Campaign, Operation Breadbasket, and the Poor People's Campaign. The Chicago Campaign focused on such issues as the lack of African American employment, housing, and education opportunities and highlighted the difficulties of fighting entrenched racism. The goal of Operation Breadbasket, with activist Jesse Jackson as its leader, was to put pressure on corporations to hire African Americans and support black-owned businesses. Jackson would later leave the SCLC and begin Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), whose goals were very similar to Operation Breadbasket.
The goals of the Poor People's Campaign were to pressure the federal government to provide food aid to the neediest counties in the United States and to pressure the U.S. Senate to approve a bill to fund the construction of low-income housing King and other organizers planned the "Poor People's March" on Washington, D.C., in April 1968 to bring attention to America's poor; but King was assassinated in Memphis before the march could take place. Ralph Abernathy took the helm of the SCLC after King's death and continued with plans to demonstrate and march on Washington as a tribute to King; the march was largely a failure because of inclement weather and poor planning. The plan was to have participants march through the capital and visit various federal agencies in hopes of getting Congress to pass substantial anti-poverty legislation. They constructed tents and cardboard shelters on the national mall and named the "town" Resurrection City. Unfortunately, a torrential downpour during the event and the aftermath of the death of Martin Luther King resulted in poor participation in the march. More importantly, the campaign failed to garner support from white liberals.
In the early twenty-first century, the SCLC fell on hard times. Since the death of Martin Luther King Jr., leadership battles,
financial troubles, internal feuds, and shrinking membership plagued the organization. Both Joseph Lowery and Martin Luther
King III stepped down as president after clashing with the board. In 2003, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who was one of the
organization's founders, quit as president because of squabbling among board members. Television Judge Greg Mathis was poised
to take the leadership of the organization in 2004; however, he pulled out after a faction led by Ralph Abernathy III engaged
in shouting matches and vehemently protested this move at the organization's annual convention. Later that year, former Alabama
senator Charles W. Steele Jr. was picked to head the organization. During his tenure, the organization regained its financial
footing, securing backing from several high-profile corporations, including Coca-Cola Co., IBM, Home Depot, Wachovia Bank,
BellSouth, Georgia Power, and Cousins Properties.
In 2007, the SCLC opened a new $3 million international headquarter in Atlanta. During the organization's golden anniversary convention, it emphasized individual financial responsibility. Convention attendees and guests engaged in dialogue under the theme of "Financial Empowerment: Building Wealth" and "Financial Planning and Wealth Creation." In addition, convention attendees also discussed issues that revisited SCLC's original mission, such as voter education and conflict resolution. The SCLC also seems to have regained some of the political power it once wielded. Both former President Bill Clinton and 2008 Democratic Party Presidential Nominee Barack Obama addressed the 2007 convention. Currently, Anniston-Calhoun County, Birmingham, Greene County, Jefferson County, and the Alabama State Chapter are the only chapters that remain active in Alabama.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
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, 1955-1968. New York: William Morrow, 1986.
Peake, Thomas. Keeping the Dream Alive: A History of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from King to the Nineteen-Eighties. New York: Peter Lang, 1987.
F. Erik Brooks
Georgia Southern University
Published January 12, 2009
Last updated September 23, 2011