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Southern Christian Leadership Conference

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Title: Southern Christian Leadership Conference  
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Subject: African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68), Martin Luther King, Jr., National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, James Orange, Septima Poinsette Clark
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Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Abbreviation SCLC
Formation January 10, 1957
Type NGO
Purpose Civil Rights
Headquarters Atlanta, Georgia
Region served United States
National President/CEO Charles Steele, Jr.
Affiliations 17 affiliates; 57 chapters

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is an African-American Martin Luther King, Jr. The SCLC had a large role in the American Civil Rights Movement.[1]


On January 10, 1957, following the nonviolent direct action as a method of desegregating bus systems across the South. In addition to Rustin and Baker, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Rev Joseph Lowery of Mobile, Rev Ralph Abernathy of Montgomery, Rev C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, all played key roles in this meeting.[2]

On February 15, a follow-up meeting was held in New Orleans. Out of these two meetings came a new organization with Dr. King as its president. Initially called the "Negro Leaders Conference on Nonviolent Integration," then "Southern Negro Leaders Conference," the group eventually chose "Southern Christian Leadership Conference" (SCLC) as its name, and expanded its focus beyond busses to ending all forms of segregation. A small office was established on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta with Ella Baker as SCLC's first — and for a long time only — staff member.[3]

SCLC was governed by an elected Board, and established as an organization of affiliates, most of which were either individual churches or community organizations such as the NAACP and CORE who recruited individuals and formed them into local chapters.

During its early years, SCLC struggled to gain footholds in black churches and communities across the South. Social activism in favor of racial equality faced fierce repression from police, White Citizens' Council and the Ku Klux Klan. Only a few churches had the courage to defy the white-dominated status-quo by affiliating with SCLC, and those that did risked economic retaliation against pastors and other church leaders, arson, and bombings.

SCLC's advocacy of boycotts and other forms of nonviolent protest was controversial among both whites and blacks. Many black community leaders believed that segregation should be challenged in the courts and that direct action excited white resistance, hostility, and violence. Traditionally, leadership in black communities came from the educated elite—ministers, professionals, teachers, etc.—who spoke for and on behalf of the laborers, maids, farm-hands, and working poor who made up the bulk of the black population. Many of these traditional leaders were uneasy at involving ordinary blacks in mass activity such as boycotts and marches.

SCLC's belief that churches should be involved in political activism against social ills was also deeply controversial. Many ministers and religious leaders—both black and white—thought that the role of the church was to focus on the spiritual needs of the congregation and perform charitable works to aid the needy. To some of them, the social-political activity of Dr. King and SCLC amounted to dangerous radicalism which they strongly opposed.

SCLC and Dr. King were also sometimes criticized for lack of militancy by younger activists in groups such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) who were participating in sit-ins and Freedom Rides.

Citizenship Schools

Originally started in 1954 by literacy tests, fill out driver's license exams, use mail-order forms, and open checking accounts. Under the auspices of the Highlander Folk School (now Highlander Research and Education Center) the program was expanded across the South. The Johns Island Citizenship School was housed at The Progressive Club, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.[4][5]

When the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander's charter and confiscated its land and property in 1961, SCLC rescued the citizenship school program and added Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson, and Andrew Young to its staff. Under the innocuous cover of adult-literacy classes, the schools secretly taught democracy and civil rights, community leadership and organizing, practical politicals, and the strategies and tactics of resistance and struggle, and in so doing built the human foundations of the mass community struggles to come.

Eventually, close to 69,000 teachers, most of them unpaid volunteers and many with little formal education, taught Citizenship Schools throughout the South.[6] Many of the Civil Rights Movement's adult leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray, and hundreds of other local leaders in black communities across the South attended and taught citizenship schools.[7]

Albany Movement

In 1961 and 1962, SCLC joined SNCC in the [8]

Birmingham campaign

By contrast, the 1963 SCLC campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, was an unqualified success. The campaign focused on a single goal — the desegregation of Birmingham's downtown merchants — rather than total desegregation, as in Albany. The brutal response of local police, led by Public Safety Commissioner "Bull" Connor, stood in stark contrast to the nonviolent civil disobedience of the activists.

After his arrest in April, King wrote the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in response to a group of clergy who had criticized the Birmingham campaign, writing that it was "directed and led in part by outsiders" and that the demonstrations were "unwise and untimely."[9] In his letter, King explained that, as president of SCLC, he had been asked to come to Birmingham by the local members:

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming in." I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. ... Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here I am here because I have organizational ties here.[10]

King also addressed the question of "timeliness":

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. ... Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.[10]

The most dramatic moments of the Birmingham campaign came on May 2, when more than 1,000 Black children left school to join the demonstrations; hundreds were arrested. The following day, 2,500 more students joined and were met by Bull Connor with police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses. That evening, television news programs reported to the nation and the world scenes of fire hoses knocking down schoolchildren and dogs attacking individual demonstrators. Public outrage led the Kennedy administration to intervene more forcefully and a settlement was announced on May 10, under which the downtown businesses would desegregate and eliminate discriminatory hiring practices, and the city would release the jailed protesters.

March on Washington

After the Birmingham Campaign, SCLC called for massive protests in Washington DC to push for new civil rights legislation that would outlaw segregation nation-wide. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin issued similar calls for a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On July 2, 1963, King, Randolph, and Rustin met with James L. Farmer, Jr. of CORE, John Lewis of SNCC, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, and Whitney Young of the Urban League to plan a united march on August 28.

The media and political establishment viewed the march with great fear and trepidation over the possibility that protesters would run riot in the streets of the capital. But despite their fears, the March on Washington was a huge success, with no violence, and an estimated number of participants ranging from 200,000 to 300,000. It was also a logistical triumph — more than 2,000 buses, 21 special trains, 10 chartered aircraft, and uncounted autos converged on the city in the morning and departed without difficulty by nightfall.

The crowning moment of the march was Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech in which he articulated the hopes and aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement and rooted it in two cherished gospels — the Old Testament and the unfulfilled promise of the American creed.[11]

St. Augustine protests

When civil rights activists protesting segregation in St. Augustine, Florida were met with arrests and Ku Klux Klan violence, the local SCLC affiliate appealed to Dr. King for assistance in the spring of 1964. SCLC sent staff to help organize and lead demonstrations and mobilized support for St. Augustine in the North. Hundreds were arrested on sit-ins and marches opposing segregation, so many that the jails were filled and the overflow prisoners had to be held in outdoor stockades. Among the northern supporters who endured arrest and incarceration were Mrs. Malcolm Peabody, the mother of the governor of Massachusetts and Mrs. John Burgess, wife of the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts.[12]

Nightly marches to the Old Slave Market were attacked by white mobs, and when blacks attempted to integrate "white-only" beaches they were assaulted by police who beat them with clubs. On June 11, Dr. King and other SCLC leaders were arrested for trying to lunch at the Monson Motel restaurant, and when an integrated group of young protesters tried to use the motel swimming pool the owner poured acid into the water. TV and newspaper stories of the struggle for justice in St. Augustine helped build public support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964[13] that was then being debated in Congress.[14]

Selma Voting Rights Campaign and March to Montgomery

When voter registration and civil rights activity in Selma, Alabama was blocked by an illegal injunction,[15] the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) asked SCLC for assistance. Dr. King, SCLC, and DCVL chose Selma as the site for a major campaign around voting rights that would demand national voting rights legislation in the same way that the Birmingham and St. Augustine campaigns won passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[13][16]

In cooperation with SNCC who had been organizing in Selma since early 1963, the Voting Rights Campaign commenced with a rally in Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark — a staunch segregationist. Black voter applicants were subjected to economic retaliation by the White Citizens' Council, and threatened with physical violence by the Ku Klux Klan. Officials used the discriminatory literacy test[17] to keep blacks off the voter rolls.

Nonviolent mass marches demanded the right to vote and the jails filled up with arrested protesters, many of them students. On February 1, Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy were arrested. Voter registration efforts and protest marches spread to the surrounding Black Belt counties — Perry, Wilcox, Marengo, Greene, and Hale.

On February 18, an Alabama State Trooper shot and killed Wallace. Led by Reverend Hosea Williams of SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC, the marchers were attacked by State Troopers, deputy sheriffs, and mounted possemen who used tear-gas, clubs, and bull whips to drive them back to Brown Chapel. News coverage of this brutal assault on nonviolent demonstrators protesting for the right to vote — which became known as "Bloody Sunday" — horrified the nation.[18]

Dr. King called on clergy and people of conscience to support the black citizens of Selma. Thousands of religious leaders and ordinary Americans came to demand voting rights for all. One of them was James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister, who was savagely beaten to death on the street by Klansmen who severely injured two other ministers in the same attack.

After many more protests, arrests, and much legal maneuvering, a Federal judge ordered Alabama to allow the march to Montgomery. It began on March 21 and arrived in Montgomery on the 24th. On the 25th, an estimated 25,000[19] protesters marched to the steps of the Alabama capitol in support of voting rights where Dr. King spoke[20] on the voting rights struggle. Within five months, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson responded to the enormous public pressure generated by the Voting Rights Campaign by enacting into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Grenada Freedom Movement

When the Meredith Mississippi March Against Fear passed through Grenada, Mississippi on June 15, 1966, it sparked months of civil rights activity on the part of Grenada blacks. They formed the Grenada County Freedom Movement (GCFM) as an SCLC affiliate, and within days 1,300 blacks registered to vote.[21]

Though the Jim Crow social order. In July and August, large mobs of white segregationists mobilized by the KKK violently attacked nonviolent marchers and news reporters with rocks, bottles, baseball bats and steel pipes.

When the new school year began in September, SCLC and the GCFM encouraged more than 450 black students to register at the formerly white schools under a court desegregation order. This was by far the largest school integration attempt in Mississippi since the [22]

Over the following days, white mobs continued to attack the black children until public pressure and a Federal court order finally forced Mississippi lawmen to intervene. By the end of the first week, many black parents had withdrawn their children from the white schools out of fear for their safety, but approximately 150 black students continued to attend, still the largest school integration in state history at that point in time.

Inside the schools, blacks were harassed by white teachers, threatened and attacked by white students, and many blacks were expelled on flimsy pretexts by school officials. By mid-October, the number of blacks attending the white schools had dropped to roughly 70. When school officials refused to meet with a delegation of black parents, black students began boycotting both the white and black schools in protest. Many children, parents, GCFM activists, and SCLC organizers were arrested for protesting the school situation. By the end of October, almost all of the 2600 black students in Grenada County were boycotting school. The boycott was not ended until early November when SCLC attorneys won a Federal court order that the school system treat everyone equal regardless of race and meet with black parents.

Chicago Freedom Movement

Poor People's Campaign


After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, leadership was transferred to Ralph Abernathy, who presided until 1977. Abernathy was replaced by Joseph Lowery who was SCLC president until 1997. In 1997, MLK’s son, Martin Luther King III, became the president of SCLC. In 2004, for less than a year, it was Fred Shuttlesworth. After him, the president was Charles Kenzie Steele, Jr., and in 2009, it was Howard W. Creecy, Jr. Next wer Isaac Newton Farris, Jr. Finally, the current president is Rev. Dr. CT Vivian, who took office in 2012 and remains today.

1997 to present

In 1997, state flag, which previously featured a large Confederate cross.[23]

Within only a few months of taking the position, however, King was being criticized by the Conference board for alleged inactivity. He was accused of failing to answer correspondence from the board and take up issues important to the organization. The board also felt he failed to demonstrate against national issues the SCLC previously would have protested, like the disenfranchisement of black voters in the Florida election recount or time limits on welfare recipients implemented by then-President Bill Clinton.[24] King was further criticized for failing to join the battle against AIDS, allegedly because he feels uncomfortable talking about condoms.[23] He also hired Lamell J. McMorris, an executive director who, according to The New York Times, "rubbed board members the wrong way."[24]

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference suspended King from the presidency in June 2001, concerned that he was letting the organization drift into inaction. In a June 25 letter to King, the group's national chairman at the time, Claud Young, wrote, "You have consistently been insubordinate and displayed inappropriate, obstinate behavior in the (negligent) carrying out of your duties as president of SCLC."[24] King was reinstated only one week later after promising to take a more active role. Young said of the suspension, "I felt we had to use a two-by-four to get his attention. Well, it got his attention all right."[24]

After he was reinstated, King prepared a four-year plan outlining a stronger direction for the organization, agreeing to dismiss McMorris and announcing plans to present a strong challenge to the Montgomery, Alabama.[24] He also planned to concentrate on racial profiling, prisoners' rights and closing the digital divide between whites and blacks.[23] However, King also suggested in a statement that the group needed a different approach than it had used in the past, stating, "We must not allow our lust for 'temporal gratification' to blind us from making difficult decisions to effect future generations."[24]

Martin Luther King III resigned in 2004, upon which [25] He was replaced by Charles Steele, Jr., who served until October 2009.

On October 30, 2009, Elder Bernice King, Dr. King's youngest child, was elected SCLC's new president, with Rev. Dr. James Bush III taking office in February 2010 as Acting President/CEO until Elder King took office. However, on January 21, 2011, fifteen months after her election, Elder King declined the position of president. In a written statement, she said that her decision came “after numerous attempts to connect with the official board leaders on how to move forward under my leadership, unfortunately, our visions did not align.”[26]


The best-known member of the SCLC was Joseph Lowery, Ralph Abernathy, Ella Baker, James Bevel, Diane Nash, Jesse Jackson, James Orange, Charles Kenzie Steele, C.T. Vivian, Fred Shuttlesworth, Walter E. Fauntroy, Claud Young, Septima Clark, Martin Luther King III, Dorothy Cotton, Curtis W. Harris, Hosea Williams, Maya Angelou, Andrew Young, and Golden Frinks.

 • 1957–1968 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
 • 1968–1977 Ralph Abernathy
 • 1977–1997 Joseph Lowery
 • 1997–2004 Martin Luther King III
 • 2004 Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth
 • 2004–2009 Charles Steele, Jr.
 • 2009–2011 Rev. Dr. Howard W. Creecy, Jr.
 • 2012–present Charles Steele, Jr.

Relationships with other organizations

Because of its dedication to non-violent direct-action protests, civil disobedience, and mobilizing mass participation in boycotts and marches, SCLC was considered more "radical" than the older NAACP, which favored lawsuits, legislative lobbying, and education campaigns conducted by professionals and usually opposed civil-disobedience. At the same time, it was generally considered less radical than CORE or the youth-led SNCC.

To a certain extent during the period 1960–1964, SCLC had a mentoring relationship with SNCC before SNCC began moving away from nonviolence and integration in the late 1960s. Over time, SCLC and SNCC took different strategic paths, with SCLC focusing on large-scale campaigns such as [27] S.C.L.C. also had its own youth volunteer initiative, the SCOPE Project (Summer Community Organization on Political Education), which placed about 500 young people, mostly white students from nearly 100 colleges and universities, who registered about 49,000 voters in 120 counties in 6 southern states in 1965–66.

In August 1979, head of the SCLC, Joseph Lowery, met with the Palestinian self-determination and urged the PLO to "consider" recognizing Israel's right to exist.[28]


  1. ^ King Research & Education Institute at Stanford Univ. "Southern Christian Leadership Conference". 
  2. ^ Branch, Taylor (1988). Parting the Waters. Simon & Schuster. 
  3. ^ Garrow, David (1986). Bearing the Cross. Morrow. 
  4. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places.  
  5. ^ "The Progressive Club, Charleston County (3377 River Rd., Johns Island)". National Register Properties in South Carolina. South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Retrieved 2014-08-01. 
  6. ^ Payne, Charles (1995). I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. University of California Press. 
  7. ^ Citizenship Schools ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  8. ^ Albany GA, Movement ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  9. ^ C.C.J. Carpenter; et al. (April 12, 1963). "Statement by Alabama Clergymen" (.PDF). Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. Retrieved February 12, 2008. 
  10. ^ a b Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 16, 1963). "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (.PDF). Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. Retrieved February 12, 2008. 
  11. ^ March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  12. ^ St. Augustine Movement King Research and Education Institute (Stanford Univ)
  13. ^ a b c Civil Rights Act of 1964
  14. ^ St. Augustine Movement 1963–1964 ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  15. ^ The Selma Injunction ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  16. ^ SCLC's "Alabama Project" ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  17. ^ Are You "Qualified" to Vote? The Alabama "Literacy Test" ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  18. ^ King Research & Education Institute at Stanford University. "Selma to Montgomery March". 
  19. ^ Garrow, David (1986). Bearing the Cross. Morrow.  
  20. ^ King Research & Education Institute at Stanford University. "Our God Is Marching On!". 
  21. ^ Grenada Mississippi, 1966 Chronology of a Movement
  22. ^ "Negroes Beaten in Grenada School Integration". New York Times. University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved 10 September 2013. 
  23. ^ a b c Gettleman, Jeffrey. "M.L. King III: Father's path hard to follow." Los Angeles Times, August 5, 2001. Retrieved on September 14, 2008.
  24. ^ a b c d e f Firestone, David. "A civil rights group suspends, then reinstates, its president." The New York Times, July 26, 2001. Retrieved on August 28, 2008.
  25. ^ "President of Beleaguered Civil Rights Group Resigns".  
  26. ^ "Bernice King Declines SCLC Presidency".  
  27. ^ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  28. ^  


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