A Profile of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma to Montgomery, Ala., civil rights marchers, 1965
Martin Luther King cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Stephen F. Somerstein/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Today, civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, Black Lives Matter and the National Action Network are among the most recognized in the United States. But, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which grew from the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, lives on to this day. The advocacy group’s mission is to fulfill the promise of “‘one nation, under God, indivisible’ together with the commitment to activate the ‘strength to love’ within the community of humankind,” according to its website. While it no longer wields the influence it did during the 1950s and ’60s, the SCLC remains an important part of the historical record due to its affiliation with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a co-founder.

With this overview of the group, learn more about the SCLC’s origins, the challenges it has faced, its triumphs and leadership today.

The Link Between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the SCLC

The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted from Dec. 5, 1955, to Dec. 21, 1956, and began when Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a White man. Jim Crow, the system of racial segregation in the American South, dictated that African Americans not only had to sit in the back of the bus but also stand when all seats filled up. For defying this rule, Parks was arrested. In response, the African American community in Montgomery fought to end Jim Crow on city buses by refusing to patronize them until the policy changed. A year later, it did. Montgomery buses were desegregated. The organizers, part of a group called the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), declared victory. The boycott leaders, including a young Martin Luther King, who served as MIA’s president, went on to form the SCLC.

The bus boycott triggered similar protests across the South, so King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who served as MIA’s program director, met with civil rights activists from all over the region from January 10-11, 1957, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. They joined forces to launch a regional activist group and plan demonstrations in several Southern states to build on the momentum from Montgomery’s success. African Americans, many of whom had previously believed that segregation could only be eradicated through the judicial system, had witnessed firsthand that public protest could lead to social change, and civil rights leaders had many more barriers to strike down in the Jim Crow South. Their activism wasn’t without consequences, however. Abernathy’s home and church were firebombed and the group received countless written and verbal threats, but that didn’t stop them from founding the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration. They were on a mission.

According to the SCLC website, when the group was founded, the leaders “issued a document declaring that civil rights are essential to democracy, that segregation must end, and that all Black people should reject segregation absolutely and nonviolently.”

The Atlanta meeting was only the beginning. On Valentine’s Day 1957, civil rights activists assembled once more in New Orleans. There, they elected executive officers, naming King president, Abernathy treasurer, the Rev. C. K. Steele vice president, the Rev. T. J. Jemison secretary, and I. M. Augustine general counsel.

By August of 1957, the leaders cut their group’s rather cumbersome name to its current one — the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They decided they could best execute their platform of strategic mass nonviolence by partnering with local community groups throughout the Southern 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.

Achievements and Nonviolent Philosophy

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. It also played a role in 1963’s Selma Voting Rights Campaign, 1965’s March to Montgomery and 1967’s Poor People's Campaign, which reflected King’s increasing interest in addressing issues of economic inequality. In essence, the many achievements for which King is remembered are direct outgrowths of his involvement in the SCLC.

During the 1960s, the group was in its heyday and considered to be one of the “Big Five” civil rights organizations. In addition to the SCLC, the Big Five consisted of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality.

Given Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolence, it was no surprise that the group he presided over also adopted the pacifist platform inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, many young Black people, including those in SNCC, believed that nonviolence wasn’t the answer to the widespread racism in the United States. Supporters of the Black power movement, in particular, believed self-defense and, thus, violence was necessary for Blacks in the United States and worldwide to win equality. In fact, they had seen many Blacks in African countries under European rule achieve independence through violent means and wondered whether Black Americans should do the same. This shift in thinking after King’s assassination in 1968 may be why the SCLC wielded less influence as time went on.

After King’s death, the SCLC discontinued the national campaigns for which it was known, instead focusing on small campaigns throughout the South. When King protégé the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. left the group, it suffered a blow since Jackson ran the economic arm of the group, known as Operation Breadbasket. And by the 1980s, both the civil rights and Black power movements had effectively ended. One major achievement of the SCLC following King’s demise was its work to get a national holiday in his honor. After facing years of resistance in Congress, the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on Nov. 2, 1983.

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. Although several Protestant pastors played roles in its founding, the group describes itself as an “interfaith” organization.

The SCLC has had several presidents. Ralph Abernathy succeeded Martin Luther King after his assassination. Abernathy died in 1990. The group’s longest serving president was the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who held the office from 1977 to 1997. Lowery is now in his 90s.

Other SCLC presidents include 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 him for not taking an active enough role in the organization. King was reinstated after just a week, though, and his performance reportedly improved following his brief ouster.

In October 2009, the Rev. Bernice A. King — another King child — 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.

Bernice 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 new life into the SCLC, but her decision to turn down the role as well as the group’s leadership troubles, has led to talk of the SCLC unraveling.

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.”

As of 2017, the group continues to exist. In fact, it held its 59th convention, featuring the Children’s Defense Fund’s Marian Wright Edelman as keynote speaker, July 20-22, 2017. The SCLC’s website states that its organizational focus “is to promote spiritual principles within our membership and local communities; to educate youth and adults in the areas of personal responsibility, leadership potential, and community service; to ensure economic justice and civil rights in the areas of discrimination and affirmative action; and to eradicate environmental classism and racism wherever it exists.”

Today Charles Steele Jr., a former Tuscaloosa, Ala., city councilman and Alabama state senator, serves as CEO. DeMark Liggins serves as chief financial officer.

As the United States experiences a rise in racial turmoil following the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump as president, the SCLC has become engaged in the effort to remove Confederate monuments throughout the South. In 2015, a young white supremacist, fond of Confederate symbols, gunned down Black worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. In 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., a white supremacist used his vehicle to fatally mow down a woman protesting a gathering of white nationalists outraged by the removal of Confederate statues. Accordingly, in August 2017, the Virginia chapter of the SCLC advocated to have a statue of a Confederate monument removed from Newport News and replaced with an African American history-maker such as Frederick Douglass.

“These individuals are civil rights leaders,” SCLC Virginia President Andrew Shannon told news station WTKR 3. “They fought for freedom, justice and equality for all. This Confederate monument does not represent freedom justice and equality for all. It represents racial hatred, division and bigotry.”

As the nation resists a surge in white supremacist activity and regressive policies, the SCLC may find that its mission is as needed in the 21st century as it was in the 1950s and 60s.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "A Profile of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 12, 2021, thoughtco.com/southern-christian-leadership-conference-4150172. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, February 12). A Profile of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/southern-christian-leadership-conference-4150172 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "A Profile of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/southern-christian-leadership-conference-4150172 (accessed February 9, 2023).