Oxford AASC: Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Civil rights group led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and a coalition of other Southern black ministers, which organized protests in the 1950s and 1960s against segregation and barriers to voting.

The civil rights activist Bayard Rustin once described the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as the “dynamic center” of the cluster of organizations that made up the Civil Rights Movement. It differed from such organizations as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which functioned nationwide and sought to recruit individual members. SCLC served as an umbrella group for affiliates, and initially concentrated its energies on America's segregated South. With prominent black ministers on its executive board and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., at its helm, SCLC proved to be the guiding force and inspiration to the organizations and protesters engaged in the exhausting struggle for civil rights. In the words of one activist, “Southern Christian Leadership Conference is not an organization—it's a church.”

In January 1957, sixty activists responded to a call for an Atlanta conference on nonviolent integration. Among the leaders were Northern activists Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and Stanley Levison, and Southern civil rights veterans Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, C. K. Steele, Joseph Lowery, and William Holmes Borders. Shortly after this meeting, the group established a permanent organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and elected King as its president. The goal was to “to redeem the soul of America” through nonviolent resistance, based on the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. The organization drew its strength from the black churches of the South, whose ministers were said to mirror the spirit of the community.

John Tilley and, later, Ella J. Baker took the job of running the Atlanta headquarters. Despite the increasingly contentious climate in the South, where black students conducted Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides to protest segregation, SCLC's early activities were fairly mild, focusing on education programs and on bringing rural blacks to the voting booth.

A SNCC-led protest against segregation in Albany, Georgia, was already under way in late November 1961, when King and executive director Wyatt Tee Walker brought the SCLC into its first major nonviolent campaign. In some ways it failed; demonstrations and arrests provoked few changes and little national attention. The federal courts, unlike their actions in earlier desegregation disputes, refused to back up the protesters. After an unsuccessful attempt to raise national support by calling attention to the imprisonment of King and Abernathy, SCLC retreated from Albany.

SCLC's 1963 campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, succeeded in every way the Albany campaign had not. In a city where white supremacist Eugene “Bull” Connor controlled the police, SCLC launched Project C (C for confrontation). The movement drew criticism from white liberals, such as Robert Kennedy, as well as from some blacks, who suggested that the protesters wait for the reforms promised by the recently elected mayor. But as the Reverend King pointed out: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Without its usual supporters, the demonstration limped on, and black protesters who sat-in at white-only counters soon filled the city jails.

A brilliant strategic move turned the tide of the faltering demonstration. On May 2, 1963, more than 700 black children marched from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church through town. After police wagons were filled, the children were carted to jail in school buses. When 2,500 more young protesters marched the next day, the police turned fire hoses on them and the international press turned their cameras on Birmingham's police. The world saw horrifying pictures of black children knocked down by a force of water powerful enough to remove the bark from nearby trees. Now under international pressure and the growing threat of a riot, Birmingham's officials returned to the bargaining table more willing to deal with SCLC.

As a result of the Birmingham protest, SCLC won a desegregation settlement. More important, the protest laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After its Birmingham triumph, SCLC organized other desegregation campaigns in Savannah, Georgia, and St. Augustine, Florida, and played a pivotal role in the March on Washington in 1963. During Freedom Summer of 1964, SCLC joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) for a massive voter registration campaign.

In its 1965 campaign in Selma, Alabama, SCLC took aim at unjust registration tests designed to keep blacks from voting. In some Southern counties, less than 5 percent of eligible black voters were registered; in other counties, no blacks could vote. When 400 prospective black voters, led by King and John Lewis, staged a “stand-in” at the Dallas County Courthouse, they were harassed and arrested. King wrote in The New York Times that more blacks were in Selma jails than were registered to vote.

Galvanized by a surge of police brutality in neighboring Perry County, SCLC organized a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. As 600 marchers began the walk, state troopers, under orders from Governor George Wallace, attacked them with clubs and tear gas. The day was dubbed Bloody Sunday.

More protesters came to Selma to undertake the march again, but tension between the two organizing groups, SCLC and SNCC, delayed the protest. King led a second march just over the Pettus Bridge. SNCC members accused King of leading this much shorter march after negotiating a compromise with Wallace, and the rift between the organizations widened. By the time the full march occurred, led by both organizations, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned unfair voting tests, had already been passed. The march took place anyway as a symbolic gesture of the solidarity that existed for the long struggle still ahead.

Some observers criticized the SCLC for being too dependent on white liberal support and, at a time of the rising Black Power movement, too moderate. SCLC responded to the criticism by expanding its operations north to Chicago, Illinois where, according to one historian, “SCLC discovered … that discrimination was a far more insidious and tenacious enemy than segregation.” The organization shifted its attention to economic inequality.

Operation Breadbasket, organized in July 1967 as a national program to put “bread, money, and income into the baskets of black and poor people,” became the economic arm of SCLC, organizing black consumers to press for jobs and to encourage black-owned businesses. Seeing poverty as the root of inner-city violence, SCLC began to plan the Poor People's Campaign to push for federal legislation to guarantee employment, income, and housing for the nation's economically disadvantaged blacks.

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, interrupted plans for the Poor People's Campaign. The organization, which had sometimes been overshadowed by its leader's brilliance, resumed planning the Washington demonstration. Under its newly elected leader, Ralph Abernathy, the SCLC brought between 50,000 and 100,000 people to Washington to rally support for economic justice for African Americans.

After King's death, the organization went into a tailspin, beset by declining contributions and internal dissension over Abernathy's leadership. Joseph Lowery revived SCLC in the late 1970s by expanding the organization's operations beyond traditional civil rights programs, but the organization never regained its former stature.

See also Integration: An Interpretation.


  • Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Sign up to receive email alerts from African American Studies Center
Highlight any word or phrase and click the button to begin a new search.