The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) profoundly affected
the modern civil rights movement as well as the
course of American political history in the second half of the twentieth century. The organization's records provide researchers
with a treasure of primary source material on the complexities of organizing a successful mass protest movement. Organizational
working papers, internal memoranda, correspondence, minutes of meetings, field reports, press releases and pamphlet
publications, questionnaire replies and statistical compilations, and many other types of documents bring to light the struggle for
civil rights. Making these records widely available in microform provides students, scholars, or any curious researcher with the
opportunity to experience the inner workings of this pivotal force in the modern civil rights movement.
The SCLC embodied the vision and philosophy of its founding president,
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the hopes,
aspirations, and energy of countless community leaders and local activists throughout the United States. King's philosophy of
nonviolent direct action and his vision for a mass movement based upon the Christian tenets of love and understanding guided
the activities of the SCLC. Although there were precursors to this vision, such as the philosophies of labor leader A. Philip
Randolph and of the pacifists organized under the Fellowship of Reconciliation, nonviolent direct action became a major force
in American politics for the first time under the leadership of King and the SCLC.
The SCLC leaders had no illusions about either the danger or the difficulty
of challenging the tyranny of jim crow in southern
life. Fear of reprisals were well justified in light of traditions of lynching, police brutality, and economic discrimination in the
South. Instilling the will, strength, and courage to throw off a lifetime of subordination and dehumanization under jim crow was
an ambitious undertaking. There were divisions within the African American population of the South and there were
apprehensions about the formidable force of southern racism. These were considerable obstacles to the creation of a mass
movement. Yet the realization of their race's desperate situation, its constant denigration and psychological burden in southern
society spurred African American leaders to action.
Among the disparate groups and individuals who flocked to the SCLC,
the ethic of nonviolence gained wide appeal. King and
other SCLC leaders worked tirelessly to maintain confidence in nonviolent methods and to rally community after community
against often discouraging odds. The SCLC succeeded again and again with nonviolent direct action and passive resistance
campaigns. A seemingly endless cascade of demonstrations, marches, boycotts, and sit-ins confronted the practice of southern
racism starting in the early 1960s. Occasionally the demonstrators were beaten back. Occasionally they were met with only
token concessions. Cumulatively, however, their campaigns wore down the defense of jim crow and energized the African
American community in the South to such an extent that reverting to the status quo of racial subordination became increasingly
It is important to realize that the movement's success drew upon earlier
traditions of African American protest. Foremost, the
work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lay much of the foundation for the
modern civil rights movement. Since early in the century, the NAACP cultivated local civil rights leaders among its vast branch
network in the South. Its conspicuous involvement in numerous, high-profile civil rights legal cases, leading up to the landmark
ruling that demolished the constitutional approval of segregation in America, provided a popular example that African American
assertiveness could triumph in American politics. Equally important, the constitutional victory in Brown v. Board of Education
required the federal government to side with advocates of desegregation. In theory, at least, this deprived the white South and
provided the civil rights movement with a powerful ally.
Reaching even further back in the history of the South was the network
of African American women's clubs. Women's groups
took the initiative to campaign for improved health care, housing, and elementary education. They organized domestic workers
and openly supported antilynching legislation. They often raised funds for local NAACP branches and frequently served as
secretaries and treasurers of those branches in the South. This tradition of feminine activism provided another source of strength
and inspiration for the modern civil rights movement.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was the largest all-African
American labor union in America. Its members
passed through and often lived in the urban South. The porters spread the news that the segregation and racial oppression of
the South was not a norm to which African Americans must submit. The message was reinforced by the union's leader, A.
Philip Randolph. Randolph was the earliest major African American political leader to advocate nonviolent direct action. His
threat of an organized mass demonstration in the nation's capital in 1942 compelled President Franklin Roosevelt to issue an
executive order banning discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies. Randolph's dramatic victory served to inspire
civil rights activists while his rank and file among the BSCP quietly subverted acquiescence to the southern way of segregation.
The political left also played a role in energizing the civil rights
movement. The Civil Rights Congress--although not southern
based--took on several high-profile cases involving police brutality and abuses of sharecroppers in the South in the 1940s and
1950s. This organization won many admirers, a number of whom remained active in the civil rights movement in the era of the
SCLC. The Highlander Folk School was another source of influence from the political left. Since the 1930s, Highlander tried to
forge a progressive interracial coalition of labor unions, tenant farmers, educators, and religious leaders in the South. Its
educational workshops were attended by such pillars of the modern civil rights movement as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther
King, Jr. While relations with the political left often posed a liability to the SCLC by exposing it to the slander of red-baiters,
leftist activists brought both energy and disciplined intellectual commitment to the ranks of the modern civil rights movement.
Beyond self-conscious racial reform movements, there were political
and cultural trends in the 1940s and 1950s that fed the
development of the SCLC. African American military service during World War II and Korea had an impact. Southern
veterans who returned home after serving the cause of freedom were reluctant to acquiesce to inferior treatment. The action
taken by President Harry Truman in ordering the desegregation of the armed services in 1948 provided additional momentum.
Thereafter, southern African Americans served in the military with the express understanding that racial equality rather than
segregation was the official policy of the United States armed services. Many local-level civil rights activists in the 1960s were
Popular culture and the mass media also contributed to a spirit of African
American pride and assertiveness that made possible
an insurgent mass movement in the 1960s. The immense popularity of boxer Joe Louis, baseball star Jackie Robinson, and
Olympian Jesse Owens in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s did much to enhance the African American self-image. Louis's
victories over his white opponents, Robinson's stardom in a virtually all-white league, and Owens's dramatic refutation of Nazi
racial pretensions provided indelible images of African American achievements. These were living refutations of the
segregationist belief in African American inferiority.
Finally, the African American ministry was poised to take advantage
of the developments in the 1950s favoring a more
assertive political style. The African American church had long been responsible for picking up the pieces left in the wake of
racist oppression in the South. The counseling and consoling of violated females, providing of emotional and material relief for
cheated sharecroppers, and eulogizing of innocent victims of white violence--these were almost daily tasks of the African
American clergy throughout the South. Clergymen frequently served as ambassadors to the caucasian community in an effort to
mediate disputes along the color line. As a result, many churches had for long expanded their activities beyond the traditional
religious emphasis on the sacred. In doing this, they often risked their reputations in the larger community, their resources, and
sometimes even their physical security. Many in the black ministry were of necessity shrewd political strategists. They were
willing to embrace new political concepts if those concepts bore a fair chance of improving the lot of their people. King's
philosophy of nonviolent direct action struck many as an opportune strategy for racial advancement and social justice.
The SCLC brought together religious leaders firmly grounded and committed
to community service and uplift. In Dr. King's first
book, Stride Toward Freedom (1958), the extended role for the church was cited. He wrote
any religion which professes to be concerned
about the soul of men and is not concerned about the social and
economic conditions that can scar the soul is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting the day to be buried...a
religion true to its nature must also be concerned about many social conditions. Religion deals with both earth and
heaven, both time and eternity.
Rev. T. J. Jemison of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, organized a bus boycott
in 1953 and provided leadership in forming the United
Defense League to address racial issues. The Baton Rouge transportation plan later served as the model used by the
Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in its 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. The Inter-Civic Council in Tallahassee,
Florida, was a combination of Florida A&M University students and the local community that vigorously protested segregation
through boycott tactics led by Rev. C. K. Steele. The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, under the leadership of
Rev. Fred Shuttleworth, actively challenged the city of Birmingham's racist policies and procedures.
The Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott movement reveals how the forces
of African American political, religious, and
feminine activism were converging into a new civil rights movement. The MIA was the result of the response of the local
NAACP, the Women's Political Caucus (WPC), and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA) to a specific incident
that reflected traditional practices of social and civic injustice.
Ms. Rosa Parks, an African American seamstress, refused to give up her
bus seat to a white passenger as required by custom
and ordinance. Rosa Parks was consequently arrested. Jo Ann Robinson (WPC) and E. D. Nixon, community advocate,
activist, and president of the state branch as well as the local branch of the NAACP, concurred that a bus boycott would be
one means to protest the bus company's policies and the arrest of Rosa Parks. Nixon agreed to encourage the leaders and
ministers of the city to unite in support of the protest efforts. However, Nixon was unable to attend the next day's meeting and
the task of calling for a bus boycott fell to Rev. L. Roy Bennett of the IMA. Another mass meeting was held a few days later
and there a new organization emerged, the Montgomery Improvement Association.
A young, charismatic minister active in support of the NAACP and committed
to social and civic reform, Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr. was called to serve as MIA president. Rev. Ralph Abernathy, another progressive, proactive minister, was elected as
vice president. The MIA was bolstered by support from the NAACP, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Congress of Racial
Equality, BSCP, and others. The bus boycott eventually forced the desegregation of Montgomery's buses. The success of the
MIA boycott made an enormous impression on African American community leaders throughout the South. Many of them
dreamed of emulating those direct action tactics to combat racial injustice in their own communities.
At a 1957 meeting of African American leaders (primarily ministers)
held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, plans
were made to mobilize a new coalition to address jim crow policies and procedures. Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin
Luther King, Jr., presented the initial plans to the group in her husband's absence on the first day of the meeting (both Dr. King
and Rev. Abernathy had rushed from Atlanta back to Montgomery in response to violence and reprisal in Montgomery). Dr.
King returned to participate in the meeting. He later noted in Chapter 9 of Stride Toward Freedom that "There I found an
enthusiastic group of almost a hundred men from all over the South committed to the idea of a southern movement to implement
the Supreme Court's decision against bus segregation through nonviolent means...." The group sought to elect Dr. King as
president of the new organization with the hope that he could replicate the success of Montgomery. Among those in
atten-dance with Dr. and Mrs. King were Martin Luther King, Sr. (Dr. King's father), Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttleworth,
Joseph Lowery, C. K. Steele, T. J. Jemison, and Bayard Rustin.
Initially the group was called the Southern Leadership Conference on
Transportation and Nonviolent Integration. This new
coalition of activists met a month later in New Orleans to elect officers and to review and expand the organization. The name of
Southern Christian Leadership Conference was adopted. At subsequent meetings, the SCLC board of directors was organized
and plans were made to hold an annual convention for legislative and inspirational purposes. The SCLC evolved to become a
nonpartisan, interracial, ecumenical organization committed to nonviolent social change. Organized primarily as a means to
duplicate the successes of the Montgomery bus boycott in other cities in the South, the SCLC selected King and Abernathy to
serve in their old MIA roles.
From its beginning, the SCLC emerged to play an outstanding pivotal
role in the civil rights movement. The organization
dedicated itself to the abolition of racial discrimination mainly via (1) voter registration and political education and (2) nonviolent
direct protest activity. SCLC goals were achieved through several sustained projects. In the early 1960s, the SCLC received
foundation grants to train African Americans in the techniques of community leadership. Citizenship schools were set up to
teach basic literacy skills and political education. The SCLC also received support to send teams to help organize voter
registration campaigns in targeted communities. The organization also worked with the Southern Regional Council (SRC) in its
Voter Education Project. One of the largest voter registration efforts was the 1965 Summer Community Organization and
Political Education (SCOPE) Project. Over 1,200 SCOPE workers, including 650 college students from across the nation,
150 SCLC staff members, and 400 local volunteers, served in six southern states to register African Americans to vote.
One of the most publicized aspects of the SCLC was its skill in organizing
and mobilizing at grassroots levels and its leadership
in implementing nonviolent direct action campaigns across the South. (SCLC activists became known as "outside agitators.")
Mass protest demonstrations were held in many communities. Some of the most notable campaigns were held in Albany,
Georgia (1962); Birmingham, Alabama (1963); Selma, Alabama (1965); Chicago, Illinois (1966-67); and twice on a national
level in Washington, D.C. (1963 and 1968). It is widely acknowledged that SCLC's Birmingham demonstrations directly
influenced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that the Selma Campaign influenced the U.S. Congress to enact the
Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Another form of direct action employed by the SCLC was the use of "selective
buying campaigns." Employers whose products,
services, or location were conspicuous in the African American community were encouraged to employ African American
workers or use "minority" services. If a firm refused to negotiate or change, an economic boycott was announced from local
pulpits. The project was known as Operation Breadbasket. It was quite successful in the South, and in 1966 and 1967 SCLC
launched major selective buying campaigns in forty cities.
In 1968, SCLC planned a Poor People's Campaign to be held in Washington,
D.C. The goal of the campaign was to unite
poor people from all races, ethnic groups, and regions to dramatize their plight and to seek redress. Dr. King interrupted his
schedule to go to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers. James Lawson of Memphis had requested that Dr. King
lend his voice and leadership to the Memphis protest. It was to be Dr. King's final project. He was assassinated in Memphis on
April 4, 1968. His prophetic speech, delivered the night before his assassination, foreshadowed his fate. Speaking with the
soul, heart, and wisdom of a man who had come to terms with man's inhumanity to man, Dr. King stated,
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.
Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just
want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the
Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the
Promised Land. And I'm happy tonight, I'm not worried about anything, I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have
seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Dr. King was unable to witness his plan to bring the issue of poverty
to the forefront of the American conscience. His murder
ended a significant era in the history of the SCLC and in African American politics in general. Though the SCLC was aware of
the many dangers and assaults that Dr. King faced, the organization, the African American world, and the nation were
traumatized by his assassination. Mourners asked themselves, "Who could lead us as Dr. King had?" According to his
successor, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, "no man, dead, living, or unborn could have filled the shoes of Dr. King."
Ralph Abernathy and other SCLC associates (Andrew Young, Hosea Williams,
C. T. Vivian, Bernard Lafayette, Jesse
Jackson) worked to bring Dr. King's dream of the Poor People's Campaign to reality. Activists and protesters from across the
country traveled to Washington, D.C., and established Resurrection City to bring attention to the issue of poverty. Perhaps
Rev. Abernathy was correct when he stated, "Markedly, the dynamics of the organization were changed by the void left by Dr.
King." However, the SCLC did continue to work to address the issues to which Dr. King had dedicated his life and ministry.
The SCLC has remained an important organization in the struggle for racial, social, and economic justice under the leadership
of Rev. Abernathy and later under Rev. Joseph Lowery.
It is important to note that with the exception of the papers of Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1954-1968) housed in the King
Library and Archives at the King Center in Atlanta, the SCLC records provide one of the best opportunities to view the
philosophical temperament and the commitment of Dr. King. In addition to revealing much about the thoughts and activities of
Dr. King, the collection also documents the roles of other key African American figures such as Andrew Young, Ralph
Abernathy, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Coretta Scott King, Hosea Williams, C. T. Vivian, Wyatt T. Walker, Randolph
Blackwell, Joseph Lowery, Jesse Jackson, and Marion Wright Edelman, as well as the voices of countless activists who were
lesser known but critical in the work and success of the SCLC and the civil rights movement.
The SCLC records also provide a critical understanding of the social
changes in this period of American history and of the
organization's prominence as an agent of that social change. The archival files show how the SCLC was able to influence public
laws and politics and bring to the forefront profound changes in American (particularly southern) race relations. These records
document firsthand virtually all of the major southern civil rights campaigns. In addition, the collection provides an excellent
overview of the development, complexity, and scope of the SCLC.
University Publications of America's microfilm publication of the SCLC
collection assures the widespread dissemination of
these records central to the life work of Dr. King. In this, the publication furthers his vision of a community based upon human
understanding and enriches our own understanding of a dynamic social movement that has had a profound impact on American
Cynthia P. Lewis
Director of Archives
King Library and Archives
The King Center
Copyright © 1995 by University Publications of America. All rights
Papers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1954-1970
Copyright © by Congressional Information Service, Inc.