SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, was the first grassroots movement of the South dedicated to racial desegregation in the United States.

Summary of Event

When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed in 1957, African Americans faced many obstacles to economic and political equality despite decades of piecemeal reforms. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;civil rights protests (NAACP), the National Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and other advocacy organizations had achieved significant gains, but African Americans in many parts of the country were prohibited from voting and blocked by lack of education and segregationist barriers from advancing economically and socially. Particularly in the southern states, blacks faced formidable barriers that had stood firmly and even intensified in spite of significant legal victories against segregation in interstate transportation and education. The major advocacy organizations began and operated chiefly in the North and had comparatively little impact on southern blacks, who lived in perennial poverty and were socially ostracized. Civil Rights movement;organizations Southern Christian Leadership Conference [kw]SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups (Jan. 10, 1957) [kw]Civil Rights Groups, SCLC Forms to Link (Jan. 10, 1957) [kw]Rights Groups, SCLC Forms to Link Civil (Jan. 10, 1957) Civil Rights movement;organizations Southern Christian Leadership Conference [g]North America;Jan. 10, 1957: SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups[05390] [g]United States;Jan. 10, 1957: SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups[05390] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Jan. 10, 1957: SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups[05390] [c]Organizations and institutions;Jan. 10, 1957: SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups[05390] [c]Social issues and reform;Jan. 10, 1957: SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups[05390] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Jan. 10, 1957: SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups[05390] King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;Southern Christian Leadership Conference Abernathy, Ralph Shuttlesworth, Fred L. Rustin, Bayard Levison, Stanley David Steele, Charles Kenzie Baker, Ella King, Coretta Scott

The SCLC was the first civil rights organization that covered the entire South. Its distinctive role as the political arm of many black churches gave it the ability to lead direct action campaigns with the kind of massive grassroots support that had eluded the NAACP and other older advocacy organizations. Under the leadership of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., from 1957 to 1968, the SCLC worked with other organizations in many desegregation campaigns. Its nonviolent direct action efforts were on a scale unparalleled in previous campaigns.

By 1957, numerous local desegregation campaigns had been launched without the benefit of a connecting framework. “Movement centers,” as Aldon D. Morris called them, included Tallahassee, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; Nashville, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and several other cities where local leaders applied interorganizational cooperation to effect changes, usually desegregation of public transit systems. What they lacked was an organizational framework to link their efforts with those in other cities and thus achieve a broader impact on behalf of integration and racial equality. Several black leaders, notably the Reverend T. J. Jemison Jemison, T. J. of Baton Rouge, the Reverend Charles Kenzie Steele of Tallahassee, and the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, expressed the need for such a larger connecting framework, especially after the important bus boycott Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) Boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, during 1955 and 1956.

The 381-day Montgomery boycott, triggered by the bold defiance of segregated seating by a black seamstress, Rosa Parks, was the catalyst in bringing these various reform centers together. The “Montgomery way,” as many termed it, had demonstrated the effectiveness of mass direct action without violence. Furthermore, it underscored the value of pooling ideas and resources to challenge laws and traditions that supported segregated public facilities such as restaurants, movie theaters, and hotels. Transportation was a particularly significant area needing attention, because many blacks depended upon public transit to get to their jobs.

Several informal groups began in late 1956 to plan a broad organization for enlarging the civil rights struggle. One of these groups included Ella Baker, a perennial supporter of direct action reform, attorney Stanley David Levison, and civil rights advocate Bayard Rustin. In New York, they formed a small group known as In Friendship In Friendship and began to contact civil rights leaders across the South. Meanwhile, Reverend King and the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, along with others like Joseph E. Lowery Lowery, Joseph E. , Steele, and Jemison, met periodically in Montgomery to brainstorm on a possible southern direct action organization.

It would be a mistake to attribute this interest entirely to the Montgomery campaign or to contextual factors such as urbanization and its related tensions. The historical setting of the origins of the SCLC included these things as well as the impact of the Brown v. Board of Education Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case of May, 1954, that declared unconstitutional “separate but equal” schools, based on the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The Brown case was a particularly encouraging factor, because it showed that the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;segregation could be a valuable ally of black reform leaders.

In early 1956, Rustin suggested to King in Montgomery the concept of a broad organization to link the various reform centers. By the end of the year, the discussions had advanced sufficiently to attempt an organization meeting. Rustin contacted Steele and others, and round-robin invitations went out from Steele, King, and Shuttlesworth to dozens of southern activists. The foundational meeting took place at the Ebenezer Baptist Church Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on January 10 and 11, 1957, with approximately sixty people, mostly black pastors, attending.

The discussions covered a wide range of topics, mostly from working papers provided by Rustin. It was agreed that the movement would be nonviolent in method and outlook and that all Americans’ rights under the Constitution would be supported in order “to redeem the soul of America.” The fact that many participants were ministers added to the emphasis upon faith and ethics. This aspect of the Atlanta meeting was important in shaping the ethos of the emergent SCLC. The conference also cabled President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;civil rights , requesting that he or Vice President Richard M. Nixon travel to the South and take a strong stand in favor of civil rights. Eisenhower had already sent a civil rights package to Congress in 1956, but the administration’s proposals fell short of the Atlanta delegates’ expectations.

Later meetings in New Orleans on February 14 and in Montgomery in August of the same year completed the organizational process. After experimenting with various names, the new conference arrived at its permanent name, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, during the Montgomery meeting. Some SCLC leaders feared that adding the word “Christian” might alienate Jews such as Levison, but King supported the new name, believing that it reflected the true nature of the organization. Levison agreed. Some of the organizers thought that the word “Christian” would lessen the likelihood that the organization would be considered radical or communist.

The SCLC focused chiefly on basic rights for minorities and poor people. Its first major undertaking was the Crusade for Citizenship Crusade for Citizenship . Its goal was to at least double the number of registered black voters in the South. Voting rights Voting rights;African Americans African Americans;voting rights thus became one of the major emphases of the new organization. Working in conjunction with the NAACP and other organizations, the SCLC added thousands of black voters to the voting rolls in several states. It also continued to work on behalf of ending segregated transportation, desegregating schools, and gaining broader access by blacks to public facilities such as hotels and lunch counters.

The SCLC’s loose organization was important to its distinctive role in the Civil Rights movement. Without formal individual membership, it was based on affiliates, such as local churches and activist groups like Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). Operating at first in eleven states, it linked hundreds of such entities in a way that facilitated guidance from the central headquarters while maintaining considerable local autonomy. The SCLC came into cities and towns for campaigns when invited by local leaders. As the SCLC became more experienced and efficient, these invitations were carefully planned. The Birmingham campaign of 1963, which was a high point of the SCLC’s history, began on the basis of an invitation from Shuttlesworth’s organization.

The SCLC’s focus was primarily on securing rights that were based on Constitution. It was also interested, from the beginning, in economic advancement of minorities and perennially poor people. This aspect of the SCLC’s history had not been recognized adequately. The fact that its focus on social and economic gains increased after the Selma campaign and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should not be taken as an indication that the SCLC came to this emphasis only in the middle 1960’s. Poverty was viewed by the SCLC as a seminal cause of the political powerlessness of many black Americans, and from the beginning the organization was interested in the elimination of poverty. At the same time, King and his associates recognized that the right to vote would bring the ability to help determine political leaders and hold them accountable for such needs as jobs and housing. King sounded this note as early as the Prayer Pilgrimage of May, 1957, marking the third anniversary of the Brown decision. In his speech, which propelled him higher in public visibility, he gave rhythmic repetitions of the phrase “Give us the ballot,” noting that if blacks had the vote they could nonviolently eliminate many barriers to progress.


Thus began an important new organization dedicated to racial justice and advancement in the United States. It was quite different in key ways from the older NAACP and CORE, both of which began in the North and historically operated chiefly outside the South. The NAACP did have a strong presence in the South in 1957, but it was under attack by various groups and governments. Its distinguishing feature had always been litigation through the court system. The SCLC provided a framework for mass direct action, which many felt was urgently needed in the South. Furthermore, the SCLC was not a membership organization. It was structured around loosely linked “affiliates,” such as the ACMHR, rather than individual membership.

The advent of the SCLC marked a new chapter in the history of racial and ethnic rights in the United States. Strongly grounded in local churches, it sought to bring their moral strength and organizational resources to bear upon the problems of minorities. With King as its president, it had an articulate spokesperson who was increasingly drawing media interest. This was both an asset and a liability. King’s visibility helped the young SCLC but at the same time hindered the organization’s achievement of an identity apart from him. On balance, the SCLC was very significant in the continuance of the momentum gained in Montgomery and other cities in the early and middle 1950’s. For more than a decade under King, it would be a major force in massive campaigns in Birmingham; Selma, Alabama; and other cities, and after 1965 would venture into the northern United States.

Nonviolence Nonviolence was the most characteristic mark of the SCLC’s campaigns. At times it had remarkable results, not only for public policy but also for individual experiences of both blacks and whites. During the Birmingham campaign of 1963, for example, a group of marchers who were walking to a prayer vigil were confronted by Bull Connor’s police and firefighters, who were wielding water hoses to stop marchers. Despite Connor’s orders, those in charge of the hoses would not turn them on the unarmed and nonviolent group. They were, as Coretta Scott King later observed, disarmed by the nonviolent spirit of the demonstrators. Not hitting back, not hating, and not giving cause for increased violence were the salient features of the SCLC’s new mass-based direct action. Civil Rights movement;organizations Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abernathy, Donzaleigh. Partners to History: Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Crown, 2003. An intimate documentary presentation of the often-hidden history of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, presented by Ralph David Abernathy’s daughter. Includes a foreword by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abernathy, Ralph David. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. This memoir by King’s close friend and successor is disappointing on the formation and early development of the SCLC, but Abernathy’s closeness to King and the early campaigns makes this a useful source for the context. Its chief value lies in giving one a firsthand view of what it was like to live through the Civil Rights movement at its height. Index, illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. This massive study focuses on the period from the Brown v. Board of Education case to the March on Washington in 1963. Its chief value lies in examining the setting in which Martin Luther King, Jr., became the leading spokesperson for racial liberation and equality. Elaborately documented and sympathetically approached. Coverage of the founding of the SCLC is marginal, but the book is very strong on the SCLC’s early campaigns. Notes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. A detailed account of the early development of the SCLC and its historical context. A major focus is the changing role and attitudes of black clergy who played a pivotal role in the SCLC’s formation. Coverage of religious views and ideology is comparatively thin, but the book has valuable information on the internal dynamics of the SCLC. Detailed notes, chronologies, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Quill, 1999. This Pulitzer Prize-winning account, first published in 1986, is thoroughly researched and elaborately documented. Although essentially biographical, Garrow’s study also examines the campaigns and the role of the national and local governments. Thin on the inner spiritual struggles of King and his associates, but nevertheless a detailed account of King’s public career. Treatment of the SCLC’s beginnings is relatively thin but useful. Detailed notes, illustrations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, Daniel. Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights Movement. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000. A biography of Rustin that includes discussion of his philosophy of nonviolent protest and nonviolent direct action and their use in the Civil Rights movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: Free Press, 1984. An excellent study of the historical and institutional foundations of the Civil Rights movement. Examines several local centers, such as the Montgomery Improvement Association, that converged to bring about a strong southern cooperative movement. Also explores the emergence of black ministers as pivotal figures in the new activism. Coverage is basically from 1955 to 1965. The SCLC appears as the “decentralized political arm of the black church” that translated moral principles into political activism. Notes, bibliography, appendixes, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peake, Thomas R. Keeping the Dream Alive: A History of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from King to the Nineteen-Eighties. New York: P. Lang, 1987. The first comprehensive history of the SCLC, this work focuses on the motivations, programs, and training methods of the SCLC. It contains much biographical and institutional information as well as analysis of the SCLC’s religious and political concepts. Detailed notes, bibliography, illustrations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Edited by David J. Garrow. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987. A short but valuable account of the Montgomery bus boycott. Robinson, involved in the Women’s Political Council that helped organize the boycott, underscores the personal dimensions: the emotions, the hope, and the excitement of participating in these events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waldschmidt-Nelson, Britta. “’Strong People Don’t Need Strong Leaders!’ Ella Jo Baker and the Role of Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement.” In The Civil Rights Movement Revisited: Critical Perspectives on the Struggle for Racial Equality in the United States, edited by Patrick B. Miller, Therese Frey Steffen, and Elisabeth Schäfer-Wünsche. Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction, 2001. A rare article on Ella Jo Baker’s work in the Civil Rights movement, including the formation of the SCLC and her role as its executive director in 1959-1960.

Congress of Racial Equality Holds Its Journey of Reconciliation

Montgomery Bus Boycott

Congress Creates the Commission on Civil Rights

Eisenhower Sends Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas

Greensboro Sit-Ins

Civil Rights Act of 1960

Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention

King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech

Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered

Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964

King Wins the Nobel Peace Prize

Assassination of Malcolm X

Selma-Montgomery March

Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act

Black Panther Party Is Organized

Categories: History