U.S. nonsectarian agency founded by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others in 1957 to assist local organizations working for equal rights for African Americans. Operating primarily in the South, it conducted leadership-training programs, citizen-education projects, and voter-registration drives. It played a major role in the historic March on Washington in 1963 and in the campaigns to urge passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After King's assassination in 1968, Ralph Abernathy became president. In the early 1970s the SCLC was weakened by several schisms, including the departure of Jesse Jackson, who founded Operation PUSH in Chicago.
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The origins of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference lie in the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her bus seat to a white man. The bus boycott, which lasted from December 5, 1955, to December 20, 1956, brought together two Montgomery ministers: Ralph David Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as other Montgomery civil rights activists, and supporters from across the South.
As campaigns to desegregate buses began to spread in the South, a group of 60 activists met in Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 1957 to discuss the use of nonviolent resistance as the guiding principle for such movements. In addition to King and Abernathy, the conference attracted such civil rights activists as Ella Baker, T. J. Jemison, Stanley Levison, Joseph Lowery, Bayard Rustin, Fred Shuttlesworth, C. K. Steele, and others.
At the meeting, the group established the Negro Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, which was soon renamed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As its name suggested, the organization intended to draw its strength from leaders of the Black Church in the South.
Originally, SCLC was composed of affiliated churches and some community organizations such as the Montgomery Improvement Association and Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, rather than individual members. In recent years SCLC has begun recruiting individual and corporate memberships. In the 1950s, SCLC's organizational role was initially seen as a central clearinghouse for information and marshalling support local civil rights struggles by SCLC affiliates. By the early 1960s, SCLC began to offer direct organizational support to affiliates and conduct major campaigns in cooperation with affiliates.
Originally started in 1954 by Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, the Citizenship Schools focused on teaching adults to read so they could pass the voter-registration 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.
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 10,000 teachers, most of them unpaid volunteers and many with little formal education, taught Citizenship Schools throughout the South. 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.
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. In his letter, King explained that, as president of SCLC, he had been asked to come to Birmingham by the local members:
King also addressed the question of "timeliness":
The most dramatic moments of the Birmingham campaign came on 2 May, 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 10 May, under which the downtown businesses would desegregate and eliminate discriminatory hiring practices, and the city would release the jailed protesters.
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 2nd, 1963, King, Randolph, and Rustin met with James L. Farmer, Jr. of CORE, John Lewis of SNCC, Roy Wilkens 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 capitol. But 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.
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.
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 that was then being debated in Congress.
When voter registration and civil rights activity in Selma, Alabama was blocked by an illegal injuction, 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.
In cooperation with SNCC who had been organizing in Selma since early 1963, the Voting Rights Campaign commenced with a rally in Brown Chapel on January 2, 1965 in defiance of the injunction. SCLC and SNCC organizers recruited and trained blacks to attempt to register to vote at the courthouse, where many of them were abused and arrested by 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 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 1st, 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 Jimmie Lee Jackson during a voting rights protest in Marion, county seat of Perry County. In response, on March 7th close to 600 protesters attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery to present their grievances to Governor 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.
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 protesters marched to the steps of the Alabama capitol in support of voting rights where Dr. King spoke on the voting rights struggle. Within five months, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson responded to the enormous public pressure generated by the Voting Rights Campiagn by enacting into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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.
Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed segregation of public facilities, the law had not been applied in Grenada which still maintained rigid segregation. After black students were arrested for trying to sit downstairs in the "white" section of the movie theater, SCLC and the GCFM demanded that all forms of segregation be eliminated, and called for a boycott of white merchants. Over the summer, the number of protests increased and many demonstrators and SCLC organizers were arrested as police enforced the old 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 Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. The all-white school board resisted fiercely, whites threatened black parents with economic retaliation if they did not withdraw their children, and by the first day of school the number of black children registered in the white schools had dropped to approximately 250. On the first day of class, September 12, a furious white mob organized by the Klan attacked the black children and their parents with clubs, chains, whips, and pipes as they walked to school, injuring many and hospitalizing several with broken bones. Police and Mississippi State Troopers made no effort to halt or deter the mob violence.
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 up to 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.
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 to be 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 Birmingham and Selma to win national legislation and SNCC focusing on community-organizing to build political power on the local level. In many communities, there was tension between SCLC and SNCC because SCLC's base was the minister-led Black churches and SNCC was trying to build rival community organizations led by the poor.
|1957-1968||Martin Luther King, Jr.|
|1997-2004||Martin Luther King III|
|2004-present||Charles Kenzie Steele, Jr.|