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Southern Christian Leadership Conference

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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.

Early leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Revs. Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and Ralph D. Abernathy speak at a press conference in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963.
AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS

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