Southern Christian Leadership Conference – Encyclopedia of New Georgia

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, often referred to as the SCLC, was one of the most prominent participants in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The organization still champions social justice issues. Although influential in other southern states, this national organization has always been based in Atlanta, and Georgia has been home to many of its founders and leaders.


The SCLC has its origins in several mid-20th century developments. Black veterans returning from service in World War II (1941-1945) were no longer willing to accept the injustices at home they had fought abroad; The southern black churches were powerful social institutions; Black voters were increasingly involved in the Democratic Party; and the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision bolstered a national movement to desegregate public schools. African Americans began to band together in local political clubs and attract a large base of supporters, many of whom felt that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had too bad a reputation among Whites.

The event that sparked the formation of the SCLC was the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955-56. Although not started by Church leaders, the movement was soon joined by Montgomery’s black ministers, who kept the boycott alive and ensured its ultimate success. Born in Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr., then living in Montgomery and recognized for his courage, intelligence and leadership qualities, was chosen as spokesperson. News of the boycott (and others in Birmingham, Alabama and Tallahassee, Florida) was carried year-round by the New York Times. As a result, activists of both races nationwide saw the opportunity to expand the boycott movement into a Southern civil rights movement.

At a lecture at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, attendees discussed forming a civil rights organization. The Southerners and Northerners present at the conference decided to keep the regional focus, 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 downtown black class population, including many graduates of elite black colleges there, could be called upon to lend their support. The SCLC was officially inaugurated in Atlanta on January 10 and 11, 1957, and a follow-up meeting was held in New Orleans, Louisiana the following February 14.

First years

From its inception, the SCLC was an urban organization. Many historians attribute its early success in attracting members to King’s ability and prestige. Other Georgians who played a significant role in the SCLC’s early efforts included King’s wife, Coretta Scott King; Ralph David Abernathy; Joseph Lowery; and Andrew Young.

As headquarters, Atlanta was naturally the focus of the SCLC’s early activities in Georgia. In many cases, an action was initiated by another civil rights organization (such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or the Congress for Racial Equality), with King and other SCLC members standing up. joining for help. At the behest of students at Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) and Morehouse College, King joined a sit-in on October 19, 1960 at the Magnolia Tea Room at Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta . He and many others have been arrested and imprisoned due to a recently passed law against trespassing. This brought national attention to the civil rights cause.

The SCLC leadership made training new political activists in nonviolent tactics a priority and opened the Dorchester Center in Liberty County, where they trained hundreds of volunteers over the next few years. It was in this center that one of the most significant campaigns, the Birmingham, Alabama protests of 1963, was planned.

Efforts in Georgia

Notable actions in Georgia involving the SCLC include class action lawsuits filed against state and local governments for maintaining separate dining areas for employees; sit-ins (and their variants such as “wade-ins” and “kneelings”); rallies and marches organized to desegregate public places; voter registration campaigns; and boycotts against traders who would not desegregate their stores. In addition, major campaigns in other states were planned at the SCLC headquarters in Atlanta.

In December 1961, a series of mass meetings and protest marches known as the Albany Movement for Desegregation began in Albany. Its leaders invited King and Abernathy to speak at a rally, and the couple then led about 264 people to Albany City Hall, where they were arrested for marching without a permit. Although the city agreed to some desegregation measures, it quickly reneged on them. In July 1962, King and Abernathy were found guilty of leading the December march, and the SCLC renewed its protests.

Albany movement leaders

Albany movement leaders
Reprinted from Freedomways

The SCLC also organized Operation Breadbasket and the Citizenship Education Program in 1962 to raise the economic status of African Americans by focusing on the job market, literacy programs, voter education and community organization programs throughout the South.

In June 1963, Hosea Williams of the Chatham County Crusade for Voters launched demonstrations to protest segregation in Savannah movie theaters. Thousands of people participated, including many members of the SCLC, but the protests eventually turned violent. The SCLC, wishing to achieve its goals in a non-violent way, called for an end to them and a broader integration agreement was won on August 12.

On October 22, 1965, just two months after the Voting Rights Act was passed, SCLC “Voting Rights” marchers in Lincolnton were attacked and beaten. The following year, however, an SCLC voter registration drive in Hancock County, which had one of the highest concentrations of rural African Americans in the state, led to the enfranchisement of many. citizens, who through their votes and courage (and against previously insurmountable odds) dramatically changed their own lives over the next two decades.

Emancipation Meeting Flyer

Emancipation Meeting Flyer

In 1978, the SCLC joined with 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. Rather than being returned, the land had become the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. That same year, SCLC’s Lowery, speaking at a rally in Macon, urged the city to initiate racial justice in hiring practices.

In 1980, a Wrightsville SCLC leader, John Martin, was arrested by the Johnson County Sheriff for refusing to leave the sheriff’s office. The arrest sparked protests from black Georgians and nine weeks of weekly protests amid growing tension ensued before a biracial committee was formed to resolve the situation. A civil suit was filed against the sheriff and several others; although initially losing, the SCLC took the case to a federal appeals court and won a partial victory.

Leadership changes and the post-civil rights era

Andrew Young became executive director of the SCLC in 1964. Four years later he was named executive vice president but resigned in 1970 to run for Congress.

Joseph Bassey

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 propelled Abernathy to the presidency of the organization. Abernathy could not match King’s leadership talents, however, and schisms in leadership and fundraising difficulties led to the marked decline of the SCLC’s influence. In 1977, when Abernathy resigned to run for Congress, Lowery succeeded him as president. Lowery avoided financial disaster but led a less visible organization as disenchanted young people and impatient black activists gravitated to competing civil rights organizations. Although it achieved its original goals, continuing problems within the SCLC, including declining membership, financial difficulties, and infighting, weakened the organization.

Boycott of Winn-Dixie

Many leadership changes 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 interim president and CEO. In August 2004 Shuttlesworth was elected chairman, only to step down 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 chairmanship, and in January 2011 she announced that she would not accept the position. Howard Creecy then assumed the presidency and held the position until his death in July 2011. Isaac Farris, the nephew of Martin Luther King Jr., succeeded Creecy but was succeeded in April 2012 by the prominent leader of the civil rights CT Vivian, who was named interim president. . Steele returned as chairman in July 2012.

While the SCLC has not forgotten its original goals, its focus has shifted to new causes, including health care, construction site safety, and environmental and correctional justice, as well as fair treatment of refugees. As of 2003, there were seventeen Georgian chapters and affiliates of the SCLC. The organization publishes its own magazine and continues to work for civil rights.

In May 2012, a collection of documents documenting the history of the SCLC from 1968 to 2007 was opened to the public at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

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