The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed in 1957 just after the Montgomery Bus Boycott had ended. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) main aim was to advance the cause of civil rights in America but in a non-violent manner. From its inception in 1957, its president was Martin Luther King – a post he held until his murder in 1968.


As its title suggests, the input into the SCLC came primarily from the church. The church played a major part in the lives of African-Americans in the South and church leaders played a significant role in each black community in all parts of the South. Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister at Dexter Avenue in Montgomery at the time when Rosa Parks made her famous stand against bus law in December 1955. He became head of the MIA (Montgomery Improvement Association) and played a key role in the boycott – even driving the boycotters to work to ensure that they did not need to use a bus. In every sense, it would have been expected that a churchman would have played a key role in MIA and King himself said:

“(The SCLC is) church-orientated because of the very structure of the Negro community in the South.”

The SCLC brought together all the various strands of civil rights organisations and put them under one organisation. Originally called the ‘Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Non-violent Integration’, the organisation adopted the title Southern Christian Leadership Conference – by including the word ‘Christian’, it emphasised the spiritual nature of the organisation. SCLC called for three basic ‘wants’:

1)     White Americans to not stand by and meekly watch while wrongs were being committed against the black community. This point emphasised the belief by the SCLC that not all white Southerners were racist and gave the opportunity to bring whites on board the cause of the SCLC. By using the word ‘Negro’ in its original title, the movement effectively blanked out any chance that white Southerners might help them. The change in title overcame this.

2)     Black Americans were encouraged to “seek justice and reject all injustice.”

3)     All those associated with SCLC had to accept the philosophy of non-violence regardless of the provocation. The SCLC’s ‘motto’ was “not one hair of one head of one white person shall be harmed.”

From its work in Montgomery, those involved in what was to become the SCLC decided to expand the organisation throughout the southern states. Leaders such as Bayard Rustin, believed that many southern cities has their own civil rights groups that simply worked for the people within the area where these groups operated. Rustin believed that all these groups needed co-ordinating so that they could maximise their effectiveness. This was the logic behind the SCLC – it was a body that could co-ordinate, advise and develop the work done by the numerous civil rights groups that existed at a local level in the southern states. Martin Luther King was considered to be the best person to head such an organisation and he was elected its president.

The SCLC assisted black Americans in registering to vote, it opened citizenship schools, but above all it preached the use of non-violence in all campaigns associated with its name. It wanted to present civil rights to America and the world as a moral issue.

In November 1961, SCLC involved itself in civil rights issues in Albany, Georgia. However, the reaction of the city authorities meant that the campaign received very little media coverage. King knew that the lifeblood of the civil rights movement was the publicising of the unjust that existed in the South. The city authorities in Albany refused to take the bait of demonstrations etc and the SCLC campaign in the city was deemed to be a failure – there was little media coverage and little changed in the city.

This changed with what happened in Birmingham in 1963. Here the reaction of the city authorities, led by Bull Connor, led to international outrage – just as King had hoped. The use of police dogs and high pressure fire hoses against demonstrators – including children – shocked many. Television clips of people behaving in a non-violent manner being attacked by dogs and hoses provoked outraged and seemed to encapsulate the racism that was found in the South. As a result of this SCLC demonstration, Birmingham moved towards desegregation – but what was shown on television across America in Birmingham was, it is said, to have shocked the president, J F Kennedy, and helped to bring into being the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In 1963, SCLC was also involved in organising the legendary ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’. On August 28th, 1963, some 250,000 people marched in Washington DC to the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal justice for all Americans.

In 1965, SCLC launched a major campaign to register black voters. In the same year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. How much this was a response to what SCLC had done in Selma, Alabama, is difficult to judge. In this year, King had attempted to register 400 black voters in the city. Many were arrested by the police and King later commented in the ‘New York Times’ that there were more blacks in Selma’s jails than were registered to vote.

In the same year, SCLC and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee) organised a 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery. Shortly into the march, the marchers were attacked by state troopers. This prompted even more demonstrators to join those already on the march. However, a spilt occurred between SCLC and SNCC. The students accused King and SCLC of making a compromise with Governor George Wallace in an effort to allow the march to continue without trouble. Whether this was true or not, the more ‘radical’ black Americans were starting to turn to Black Power as espoused by Stokely Carmichael.

SCLC turned its attention to highlighting and attempting to address the poverty that was found in many if not all the inner city ghettoes where many black Americans lived. SCLC was concerned that inner-city violence was spiralling out of control and they blamed poverty for being the root cause of this. With little long-term job prospects, many in the ghettoes had to turn to crime to exist. By creating jobs, SCLC believed that there would be a major improvement in the quality of life many had. It was the poverty in the ghettoes that drove many black Americans into more radical movements such as the Black Panthers whose actions served to alienate those in government power the SCLC was trying to attract in terms of support. The SCLC wanted to see better job prospects, better housing and better pay in an effort to ensure a better quality of life for all.

However, the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968 was a major blow to SCLC. To many, King was the SCLC – though this would be an unfair appraisal on others who did work for the movement. King was an international figure and Nobel Prize winner who could publicise the issues SCLC stood for across the globe. His successor as president, Ralph Abernathy, was a well-respected figure in the civil rights cause – but he did not have the status that King had generated.

The SCLC continues it work today – an indication that discrimination still exists and that it needs to continue its work.