If not for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference may have never come to fruition. That’s because the boycott, which lasted for just over a year, sparked similar protests against racial segregation in public transportation and elsewhere throughout the South. How crucial of a role did the Southern Christian Leadership Conference play in the civil rights movement? This profile of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference spells that out with information about the SCLC’s founding, principles and current status.
Origins of the SCLC
The formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was a direct outgrowth of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott—which ran from Dec. 5, 1955, to Dec. 21, 1956—triggered similar protests across the South. Eventually, organizers of the Montgomery campaign, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, met with other civil rights activists from throughout the South in January of 1957 in Atlanta. They joined forces to not only launch a regional activist group but also to organize demonstrations across the South. The fact that Abernathy’s home was bombed during the gathering didn’t deter the 60 activists in attendance from founding the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration.
The Atlanta meeting was only the beginning. On Valentine’s Day 1957, civil rights activists assembled once more in New Orleans. There, they cut their group’s rather cumbersome name to the Southern Leadership Conference. Moreover, they elected executive officers, naming King group president, Abernathy treasurer, the Rev. C. K. Steele vice president, the Rev. T. J. Jemison secretary, and I. M. Augustine general counsel.
By August the group held its first convention in Montgomery, Ala. There, the organization’s named changed to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, commonly known as the SCLC. Leaders of the group decided that they could best execute their mass nonviolent strategy by partnering with local community groups throughout the confederate states. At the convention, the group also decided that its members would include individuals of all racial and religious backgrounds, even though most participants were African American and Christian.
A Nonviolent Platform
Given Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolence, it was no surprise that the group he served as president of also adopted a platform of peace. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference called for all African Americans to act against racial segregation, but blacks were to fight against inequality nonviolently. In addition to demanding that segregation come to an end, the group stated in its mission that civil rights play a fundamental role in a democratic society.
True to its mission, the SCLC participated in a number of civil rights campaigns, including citizenship schools, which served to teach African Americans to read so they could pass voter registration literacy tests; various protests to end racial divides in Birmingham, Ala.; and the March on Washington to end segregation nationwide.
The SCLC Today
The SCLC may have originated in the South, but today the group has chapters in all regions of the United States. It has also expanded its mission from domestic civil rights issues to global human rights concerns. The SCLC has had seven presidents. Ralph Abernathy succeeded Martin Luther King after his assassination. The group’s longest serving president was the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who held the office from 1977 to 1997. Other presidents have included King’s son Martin L. King III, who served from 1997 to 2004. His tenure was marked by controversy in 2001, after the board suspended King for taking an active enough role in the organization. King was reinstated after just a week, though, after which his performance reportedly improved.
An Uncertain Future
In October 2009, the Rev. Bernice A. King—daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.—made history by becoming the first woman ever elected as president of the SCLC. In January 2011, however, King announced that she would not serve as president because she believed that the board wanted her to be a figurehead leader rather than play a real role in running the group. SCLC is expected to elect a new president in August 2011.
King’s refusal to serve as president isn’t the only blow the group has suffered in recent years. Different factions of the group’s executive board have gone to court to establish control over the SCLC. In September 2010, a Fulton County Superior Court judge settled the matter by deciding against two board members who were under investigation for mismanaging almost $600,000 of SCLC funds. Bernice King’s election as president was widely hoped to breathe in new life for the SCLC, but her decision to turn down the role coupled with the group’s leadership troubles, has led to talk of the SCLC’s demise. Civil Rights scholar Ralph Luker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Bernice King’s rejection of the presidency “brings up again the question of whether there is a future for SCLC. There are a lot of people who think that SCLC’s time has passed.”