Just weeks after the landmark Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama ended on December 21, 1956 with the desegregation of the city’s bus system, the leaders of that struggle, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, convened a meeting on January 10, 1957 that led to the creation of the most important Civil Rights organization in the South over the turbulent next decade.
The idea originated with Bayard Rustin, the long time pacifist Civil Rights leader, formerly of the Quaker Fellowship of Reconciliation, and at the time the leader of the War Resistor’s League. Rustin had come to Montgomery where he helped King develop the non-violent campaign. Rustin first approached another veteran civil rights leader, the Rev. C.K. Steele, who had organized a similar bus boycott in Tallahassee. Florida, with his idea of a regional organization founded on the principles of non-violence to coordinate campaigns to integrated busses and other accommodations across the South. Steele declined, but told Rustin he would be glad to work under the leadership of King.
King called a meeting of 60 key leaders at his Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on January 10. Besides King, Abernathy, Rustin, and Steele other important participants were Ella Baker, a veteran New York activist; the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Alabama; and the Rev Joseph Lowery of Mobile, Alabama. These individuals would provide the core leadership of the organization that they created for decades.
The day of the meeting Abernathy’s home and Montgomery church were bombed. He had been scheduled to chair the meeting, but had to return home. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, was chosen to preside in his absence. The organization was formed and tentatively named the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration. A further organizational meeting was scheduled for a month later on February 10 in New Orleans to formalize the structure and elect an Executive Board and officers.
At the February meeting it was decided to broaden the purpose beyond bus boycotts. Different names were suggested before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was finally agreed upon. King was elected President, Steele as Vice President, the Rev. T. J. Jemison of Baton Rouge, Louisiana as Secretary, and Attorney I. M. Augustine of New Orleans as General Counsel. Ella Baker was hired as the group’s only paid staff member.
Unlike the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which were already active in the South, the SCLC was organized as an association of churches and community organizations governed by the Board. The older organizations recruited individuals and organized them in somewhat autonomous local chapters. This model of organization proved to be difficult in the early days because, despite high hopes, many Black churches were reluctant to join either because they were afraid of the consequences of being publicly associated with it, or because they opposed the “politicization” of the churches.
Organizational issues slowed the growth of the SCLC in the early years and confined it to educational and smaller local initiatives. But it its charismatic leader, Dr. King, soon helped bring it to the fore in struggles across the South.
In 1960 the State of Tennessee revoked the charter of the Highlander Folk School, which had long trained leaders like Rosa Parks. While the School fought to regain control of their property, its Citizenship Schools project was taken over by the SCLC. This project ostensibly was to educate voters so that they could pass state literacy tests and register to vote, but it also trained thousands in the tactics of non-violence. Graduates from the program fanned out across the South working not only for the SCLC, but for other organizations in the field.
The SCLC first mass campaign, held in cooperation with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Albany, Georgia, gained few lasting victories despite mass protests and arrests in 1960-61. King’s reputation was somewhat tarnished by the failure.
But he applied the painful lessons learned there in 1963 Birmingham Campaign. The brutal attacks on demonstrators there by Sheriff Bull Connors and the church bombing that killed Four Little Girls riveted the nation’s attention. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail helped rally support from northern liberal Whites.
In the summer of 1963 King and the SCLC, Rustin, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters leader A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer of CORE, John Lewis of SNCC, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, and Whitney Young of the Urban League organized the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington. The massive turn out, live television coverage, and Dr. King’s memorable I Have a Dream speech helped get the Civil Rights Act of 1963 through Congress.
Ahead lay the bloody Selma Campaign and the historic Selma to Montgomery March. Despite its success and King’s fame, by the mid-1960’s the SCLC’s strict adherence to Non-violence was causing friction with increasingly militant SNCC and CORE. King’s insistence on tackling issues of economic inequality and opposition to the Vietnam War alienated much of his support among White liberals and he was criticized as diverting attention from racism by the growing ranks of Black Nationalists.
In 1965 King attempted to bring Southern style mass demonstrations to Chicago in cooperation with Al Raby’s Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO). The Chicago Freedom Movement concentrated on the de facto segregation of the city’s housing. King took up residence in a Chicago slum apartment and began to lead open housing marches which were met by near riots by whites in the Chicago neighborhood of Marquette Park and in the western suburb of Cicero. Although a Summit Agreement with city officials resulted in some reforms, Chicago remained the nation’s most segregated city when King and the SCLC wound up their involvement in the campaign.
King was beginning to believe that economic inequality was as important as racism in the keeping Blacks down. He wanted to unite Blacks with poor Whites, Latinos, and Native Americans in a Poor People’s Campaign which would include another mass march on Washington and the establishment of a semi-permanent tent city until Congress took action. Although he had the strong support of Abernathy, other allies believed he was diverting attention. His increasing criticism of the War in Vietnam and regular appearances at mass anti-war demonstrations was also causing friction.
But King and SCLC leaders were determined to press ahead on all fronts. He was somewhat reluctantly drawn into a Memphis Garbage Worker’s strike. Despite the urging of aids that he concentrate on planning the Poor People’s Campaign, King felt the strike was at the heart of militancy on economic issues. After leading one march which resulted in scattered violence when elements broke away from the main body, King vowed to return to lead a truly non-violent march in support of sanitation workers. The night before the scheduled march, King gave his famous, prophetic I Have Been to the Mountain Top speech. The next day he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.
Long time top aid Abernathy assumed leadership of the SCLC. He successfully conducted the Poor People’s Campaign in King’s honor. He continued to lead the organization until 1977 when he resigned to make an unsuccessful run for college. Late in life he had some bizarre connections with the Unification Church, and his 1989 memoir And The Walls Came Tumbling Down was controversial. In detailing his close working relationship with King, Abernathy detailed alleged sexual peccadilloes by the martyred leader and some critics believed it generally puffed up Abernathy’s reputation, long overshadowed by his more famous associate. Abernathy died in 1990 at the age of 64.
Joseph Lowery was President from 1977 to 1987. He was succeeded by Martin Luther King, Jr. The younger King’s seven year tenure was troubled. The organization seemed to drift under his leadership and he was accused of not becoming involved in important Civil Rights causes, especially the disenfranchisement of Black voters in Florida. After young King’s resignation under pressure, founder Fred Shuttleworth took the reins in 2004, but resigned in less than a year citing infighting and a dysfunctional Board.
The organization has been in turmoil and decline ever since. Charles Steele, Jr., son of another founder provide week leadership until 2009. Bernice King, was elected to replace him, but deferred taking office until issues with the Board were resolved. Those issues included charges that key members may have embezzled more than $569,000, resulting in a Federal investigation and possible Internal Revenue Service fines and sanctions. A law suit resulted in the accused board members being reinstated. Board Chair Sylvia Tucker, who brought the original charges against the pair, was been in functional control of the organization and led its 2010 national convention.
The Rev. Howard Creecy Jr. was elected President in 2011 but soon died in office. Isaac Newton Farris Jr., a nephew of Dr. King, an Atlanta businessman, and former President of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta was selected to take the helm. But this summer, after less than a year in office he was ousted by the Board with no specified charges against him. He enjoys the support of many local affiliates and members of the King family which has demanded his re-instatement.
The future of the SCLC remains in doubt. The organization’s web page has not been updated since Farris’s ouster. The last post was an article in German. The one before that chronicled meetings about the 2008 presidential campaign. What resources the national organization has left are being drained away by costly litigation over the leadership struggles. Some local affiliates apparently still function, but without much support.
Winding down not with a bang but with a whimper is a sad fate for an organization that literally helped re-shape America.