Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957 - )

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

A pivotal organization of the American civil rights movement, formed in 1957 by African American ministers in the South and led by Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was crucial to the development and major victories of the American civil rights movement. The SCLC led the protest campaigns directly associated with achieving the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It was the organizational vehicIe of Martin Luther King, Jr., who became the major charismatic leader of the civil rights movement. It was also the vehicle through which many civil rights leaders worked, including Ella Baker, Wyatt Tee Walker, James Bevel, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Jesse Jackson, and many others. A key element of its success was its mass base rooted in the black church.

By the mid-1950s, the American South had been legally segregated by race for over a half-century. By law, African Americans were required to use separate public facilities such as schools, hotels, churches, playgrounds, and water fountains. When they rode public transportation they had to sit in the rear section of the buses. Additionally, blacks were excluded from the political process, especially given that they were disenfranchised. Finally, the masses had few economic resources, for they were concentrated at the bottom of the economic order and exploited on a routine basis. Southern blacks were an oppressed people who experienced humiliation daily. Conventional avenues of social change were ineffective for this group although slow progress was being made on the legal front by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Nevertheless, it would take some extraordinary measures by southern blacks to change the system of racial oppression.

The origins of the SCLC are to be found in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-1956, which set the stage for the emergence of a mass movement among southern blacks. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks of Montgomery refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man. Parks was arrested because her refusal to give the white man her seat violated local segregation ordinances. Mrs. Parks was a member of the local NAACP, and she was active in a black women's group known as the Women's Political Council. Upon learning of Parks's arrest, these two organizations called for a one-day boycott of local buses. The organizers of the boycott were surprised at the degree of cooperation they received from the black community. The vast majority of black Montgomerians refused to ride the buses. As a result, plans were made to extend the boycott indefinitely until the bus company agreed to meet their demands.

The organizers of the boycott understood that a mass movement was needed to accomplish this goal. The black churches, which had mass bases, were recruited through their ministers to support the boycott. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), an umbrella organization composed of other local black organizations, was formed to guide and coordinate the boycott. Martin Luther King, Jr., who at the time was pastor of a local black church, was elected MIA president.

Nonviolent direct action was chosen as the method of the movement. While King was familiar with Gandhi's nonviolent movement in India, the masses of black people were not. At this time, King was not committed to nonviolence as a way of life. But there were activists associated with organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) who were steeped in knowledge of nonviolent resistance. Glenn Smiley and Bayard Rustin were two such individuals who came to Montgomery and conducted nonviolent workshops for the black masses and for the leadership of the movement. The philosophy of nonviolence was consistent with key tenets of the black religious tradition. This consistency made it less difficult to disseminate the philosophy and method of nonviolence to the black masses.

King outside SCLC headquartersThe Montgomery Bus Boycott endured over a year. During this period, King proved to be an extraordinary, charismatic leader similar to Gandhi. King's influence stemmed from his connection to the black masses through the churches, his powerful personality, and his organizational position as president of the MIA. The MIA itself effectively combined charisma, organization structure, and a mass following. The movement was victorious because of the effectiveness of its year-long boycott and a Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation on buses to be unconstitutional.

The Montgomery campaign became a model for other southern black communities wishing to overthrow racial segregation. Even before the boycott achieved its goal, it inspired nonviolent movements in other cities such as Tallahassee, Florida, and Birmingham, Alabama. King and other southern leaders realized that these movements needed to be coordinated and new movements needed to be developed to overthrow the regime of racial oppression. Several northern activists including Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and Stanley Levison shared the beliefs of the southern leaders. The conclusion reached by the two groups was that a regional organization modeled after the Montgomery Improvement Association was needed to generate and coordinate mass nonviolent movements to overthrow racial segregation.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed by southern ministers in January 1957, with King as its president. Its goal was to produce mass nonviolent resistance on such a grand scale that it would topple racial segregation and usher in an era of racial integration. Charisma and nonviolent direct action by disciplined masses, combined with organizational structure, were to be the hallmark of the SCLC. Local SCLC affiliates composed of community organizations emerged in numerous southern communities, usually guided by church-based leadership.

Throughout the late 1950s the SCLC worked in local communities, preparing them to engage in nonviolent action to achieve racial desegregation and the franchise. In 1960, it helped the student lunch-counter sit-ins to be come a major movement. These sit-ins generated numerous desegregation victories and led to the establishment of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which SCLC helped to create. The SCLC also assisted the 1961 Freedom Rides begun by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which played a key role in the desegregation of interstate travel.

By the early 1960s, the SCLC decided that major community-wide protest movements were needed to defeat southern white segregationists. These segregationists used heavy repression against the movement. They controlled local governments and the means of violence, and were supported by white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizen Councils. To overcome such powerful repressive forces, the SCLC began planning massive nonviolent protest campaigns that would disrupt local communities and force the federal government to pass national legislation outlawing racial segregation.

In 1963, the SCLC organized such a campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. During that campaign, the SCLC utilized multiple nonviolent tactics including an economic boycott, sit-ins, mass marches, picketing, mass arrests to fill the local jails, defiance of a court injunction prohibiting demonstrations, and news media coverage to generate favorable public opinion. King and the SCLC were able to create total disruption in Birmingham within a month. Thousands of people filled the jails. The economic boycott paralyzed the economic community, and daily mass marches disrupted traffic and dramatized to the nation and to the world the great injustices imposed on African Americans. Birmingham's white power structure responded by unleashing vicious violence on the demonstrators, including many children.

Martin Luther King, Jr. during a speech

However, the movement had become too large and powerful to be defeated, and local economic elites yielded to the movement's demands. Within a short time additional communities throughout the nation developed Birmingham-style movements to oppose racial segregation, leading, in 1964, to the federal Civil Rights Act. The SCLC and the civil rights movement had achieved a major victory because this act removed the legal foundation of the entire regime of racial segregation. In light of this victory and the famous 1963 March on Washington, King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Following the Birmingham campaign, SCLC turned its attention to achieving the franchise for southern blacks. In the spring of 1965, SNCC had organized a major campaign in Selma, Alabama, aimed at gaining the vote for blacks. King and SCLC were called in to assist this campaign. SCLC decided to use this campaign to achieve the national legislation that would give blacks the right to vote. The SCLC and SNCC organized major demonstrations in Selma around the right to vote. They mounted huge public marches and other nonviolent tactics in Selma and surrounding towns. As in Birmingham, Selma's white power structure responded with violence against demonstrators, causing the death of a black protester. To counter the repression, movement leaders decided to organize a mass march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to dramatize the need for the vote.

Thousands of black and white demonstrators came to Selma to participate in the march. By the time the march ended, two white demonstrators from the North had been killed by white segregationists. Nevertheless, the demonstrations had been so large and dramatic and characterized by white violence that they moved the federal government to act. In August 1965, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, which finally guaranteed the franchise to to southern blacks. SCLC and the movement had achieved another major victory leading to the defeat of the regime of racial segregation.

By the late 1960s, King and other civil rights leaders had begun to realize that economic inequality between the races was a major barrier to black equality. Large numbers of blacks, especially in northern cities, began to question the efficacy of nonviolence and racial integration. They began calling for Black Power and black self-determination. They also questioned the viability of a nonviolent strategy that did not allow for black self-defense against white violence. These trends were reinforced by the urban rebellions of the late 1960s. King and the SCLC were being severely tested by these new developments. Indeed, it was not clear whether SCLC could devise an effective national strategy to solve racial oppression, especially given the defeat King and the SCLC suffered when they attempted to build a victorious movement in Chicago in 1966. Moreover, by the late 1960s, SNCC and CORE had yielded to the developing trends by embracing the goal of Black Power and approving of the right of African Americans to engage in self-defense.

March from Selma to MontgomeryAmid these changes, King and the SCLC remained firmly committed to nonviolence and the goal of racial integration. However, King and the SCLC radicalized their approach. The organization concluded that capitalism itself was largely responsible for racism and poverty more generally. The SCLC, therefore, called for the utilization of mass nonviolent resistance to achieve a redistribution of income and wealth in America. In short, the SCLC had begun to organize an interracial movement to implement a form of socialism in the United States. To this end the SCLC was to lead a Poor People's March on Washington in the fall of 1968 to eradicate wide-scale poverty and achieve social justice. All of this was to be accomplished nonviolently.

By 1968, it was not clear whether King and the SCLC could prevent violence from occurring during its demonstrations. In the spring of 1968, King and the SCLC were summoned to Memphis, Tennessee, to help lead a movement by black sanitation workers. One march King led erupted in violence that led his critics to maintain that King should not be allowed to lead protests in the nation's capital because they too would generate violence. King responded with plans to lead a peaceful march in Memphis to demonstrate that nonviolent resistance was still viable. He never had the chance. King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

King's death was a major loss to the SCLC, for it removed the charismatic center of the organization. But even if King had lived, there is great uncertainty as to whether the SCLC could have eradicated poverty and racial inequality in the United States through the use of nonviolent protest. SCLC under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy conducted the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C., in 1968. The protests were disorganized, and SCLC experienced internecine conflict during the campaign. These protests did not achieve their goal.

SCLC remains active and is likely to be so well into the twenty-first century. However, it is not clear whether the organization will be able to utilize nonviolent direct action in a creative fashion to challenge poverty and racism, which remain deeply entrenched in American society. What is clear is that the SCLC was a major player in the dismantling of legally sanctioned racial segregation in America during the twentieth century. Bayard Rustin was right when he concluded, "Thus when judging the SCLC, one must place above all else its most magnificent accomplishment: the creation of a disciplined mass movement of Southern blacks. . . . There has been nothing in the annals of American social struggle to equal this phenomenon, and there probably never will be again."

Aldon D. Morris, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
  • 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. New York: William Morrow, 1986.
  • Morris, Aldon D. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. New York: Free Press, 1984.
  • Rustin, Bayard. Strategies for Freedom. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.
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