The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, often referred to as the SCLC, was one of the most significant participants in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The organization is still active on issues of social justice. Although it has been active and influential in other southern states, this national organization has always been based in Atlanta, and Georgia has been the home of many of its founders and leaders.
The SCLC had its origins in several mid-twentieth-century phenomena. Black veterans returning from service in World War II (1941-45) were no longer willing to accept injustices at home that they had fought against abroad; Black southern churches were powerful social institutions; Black voters were becoming more involved in the Democratic Party; and the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision strengthened a national movement to desegregate public schools. African Americans began to join together in local political clubs and attract a broad base of supporters, among them many who felt that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was too radical.
The event that triggered the formation of the SCLC was the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in 1955-56. Although not begun by church leaders, the movement was soon joined by Montgomery’s Black ministers, who kept the boycott alive and ensured its ultimate success. Georgia-born Martin Luther King Jr., then living in Montgomery and recognized for his courage, intellect, and leadership skills, was chosen as their spokesman. News of the boycott (and others in Birmingham, Alabama, and Tallahassee, Florida) was carried all year by the New York Times. As a result, influential northern pacifists of both races saw the opportunity to broaden the boycott movement into a southern civil rights movement.
During a conference at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, the formation of a civil rights organization was discussed. Both southerners and northerners at the conference decided to keep its focus regional, to include “Christian” in its title to attract as many church leaders and lay people as possible, and to establish its headquarters in Atlanta, where a large, financially secure middle-class Black population, including many graduates of the elite Black colleges there, could be called upon for support. The SCLC was officially inaugurated in Atlanta on January 10-11, 1957, and a follow-up meeting was held in New Orleans, Louisiana, several weeks later, on February 14.
From its beginnings the SCLC was an urban organization. Its early success in attracting members is attributed by many historians to King’s abilities and prestige. Among other Georgians who were important in early SCLC efforts were King’s wife, Coretta Scott King; Ralph David Abernathy; Joseph Lowery; and Andrew Young.
As its headquarters, Atlanta was naturally the focus of some of the earliest SCLC activity in Georgia. In many cases an action was started by another civil rights organization (such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or the Congress for Racial Equality), with King and other SCLC members joining in to help. At the request of Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) and Morehouse College students, King joined a sit-in on October 19, 1960, at the Magnolia Tea Room in Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta. He and a number of others were arrested and jailed on a recently passed law against trespassing. This brought national attention beneficial to the civil rights cause.
The SCLC leadership considered training new political activists in nonviolent tactics a priority and opened a center for that purpose in Liberty County, at the Dorchester Center, where they trained hundreds of volunteers within the next few years. It was in this center that one of the most significant campaigns, the Birmingham, Alabama, demonstrations of 1963, was planned.
Efforts in Georgia
Notable Georgia actions involving the SCLC include class-action suits filed against government at all levels for maintaining segregated employee lunchrooms; sit-ins (and variations such as “wade-ins” and “kneel-ins”); rallies and marches held to desegregate public places;
In December 1961 a series of mass meetings and protest marches known as the Albany Movement for desegregation was held in Albany. Its leaders invited King and Abernathy to speak at the rally. King and Abernathy led about 264 people to the Albany City Hall but were arrested for parading without permits. Although the city agreed to some desegregation measures, it soon reneged on the agreement. In July 1962 King and Abernathy were convicted of leading the December march, and the SCLC renewed its protests.
Also in 1962, Operation Breadbasket and the Citizenship Education Program were organized by the SCLC in Atlanta and spread throughout the South to elevate the economic status of African Americans by concentrating on the job market, literacy programs, voter education, and community organizing programs.
In June 1963 demonstrations were initiated in Savannah by Hosea Williams of the Chatham County Crusade for Voters. Joined by thousands of people, many of them SCLC members, the demonstrations eventually turned violent. The SCLC, wishing to reach its goals nonviolently, called for their end. The rallies, sparked by the refusal of some Savannah movie theaters to desegregate, led to a more general integration agreement won by August 12.
On October 22, 1965, SCLC “right-to-vote” marchers in Lincolnton were attacked and beaten. The next year, however, an SCLC voter registration drive in Hancock County, which had one of the state’s highest concentrations of rural African Americans, led to the enfranchisement of great numbers, who by their votes and courage (and against previously insurmountable barriers) changed their own lives radically over the next two decades.
In 1978 the SCLC joined other organizations in an ultimately unsuccessful legal initiative to reclaim land in McIntosh County that had been taken from seventy Black families for use during World War II but ended up in the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge instead. In the same year, SCLC’s Lowery, speaking at a rally in Macon, spurred the city into initiating racial justice in hiring practices.
In 1980 a Wrightsville SCLC leader, John Martin, was arrested by the sheriff of Johnson County for refusing to leave the sheriff’s office. The arrest prompted protests by Black Georgians, followed by turbulence. Nine weeks of weekly demonstrations amid mounting tension ensued, and finally a biracial committee was formed to try to resolve the situation. A civil suit was brought against the sheriff and a number of others; although the case was initially lost, the SCLC brought it before a federal appeals court, where it was partially won.
Leadership Changes and the Post–Civil Rights Era
Andrew Young became SCLC’s executive director in 1964. Four years later, he was named executive vice president but resigned in 1970 to run for Congress.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, thrust Abernathy into the organization’s presidency. Abernathy could not match King’s leadership talents, however, and schisms in the leadership and difficulty with fund-raising led to the SCLC’s marked decline in influence. In 1977, when Abernathy resigned to run for Congress, Lowery succeeded him as president. Although Lowery is credited with helping the organization regain some financial strength, numerous factors (competing civil rights organizations, the disenchantment of youth and Black militants impatient with its methods, and on the positive side, achievement of its original goals) contributed to its less visible profile in today’s human justice movement. In addition, ongoing trouble within the SCLC, including declining membership, financial difficulties, and political infighting, weakened the organization.
Numerous changes in leadership characterized the two decades following Lowery’s presidency. After Lowery’s retirement in 1997, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, led the SCLC until November 2003, when the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth became the interim president and chief executive officer. In August 2004 Shuttlesworth was elected president, only to resign from office three months later. The board elected Charles Steele Jr., of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as Shuttlesworth’s successor in November 2004.
Steele served until 2009, when Bernice King, a daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., was elected president of the organization. King, however, never reached an agreement with the SCLC board regarding the terms of her presidency, and in January 2011 she announced that she would not accept the position. Howard Creecy next assumed the presidency and served in that capacity until his death in July 2011. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nephew Isaac Farris succeeded Creecy but was replaced in April 2012 by the prominent civil rights leader C. T. Vivian, who was named interim president. Steele returned as president in July 2012.
Although the SCLC has not forgotten its original goals, the focus has shifted to new causes, including health care, job-site safety, and justice in environmental and prison system matters, as well as fair treatment for refugees. In 2003 there were seventeen Georgia chapters and affiliates of the SCLC. The organization publishes its own magazine and continues to work for civil rights and the enhancement of quality of life.
In May 2012 a collection of material documenting the SCLC’s history from 1968 to 2007 opened to the public at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University.