Southern Christian Leadership Conference: Definition & Goal

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

You can probably identify different Civil Rights Movement leaders, but how much do you know about the organizations that fought for civil rights? In this lesson, you will learn about the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its goals.

Roots of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is a prominent civil rights organization that was formed in 1957 and played an integral part in the Civil Rights Movement. Developed in part by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this organization was created in response to the huge injustice of segregation and the events surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Before further exploring the SCLC, it's important to understand exactly what was going on in the South during the late 1950s. Most Southern states had policies of legalized segregation--black people and white people were required to use separate facilities, including schools, lunch counters, and even water fountains. In cities like Montgomery, Alabama, public transportation was segregated as well. As a rule, black passengers were required to sit behind a certain line on the bus, but as the bus filled up with white passengers, that line would get pushed further back. In 1955, famed civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, leading to her immediate arrest.

Diorama depicting Rosa Parks seated on the bus
rosa parks

The black community in Montgomery was outraged! But what exactly could they do about this problem? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had the answer: Orchestrate a massive boycott of Montgomery's public transportation system. For 381 days, virtually all black passengers refused to ride a bus in Montgomery, effectively bringing the city to its knees. To coordinate the boycott efforts, Dr. King and his closest friend, minister and civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy, founded the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to organize carpools and peaceful protests. The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott became the launch pad for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Ralph David Abernathy
Ralph David Abernathy

Purpose of the SCLC

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was wildly successful--not just in Montgomery, but across the South. Other communities started their own boycotts to desegregate public transportation. Dr. King saw this as an opportunity--there should be a larger organization that works to coordinate civil rights efforts throughout the South.

On Jan. 10 and 11, 1957, this idea became a reality. Roughly 60 representatives from 10 different states in the South met in Atlanta, Georgia, to discuss a plan for their new organization. The working title of the SCLC was the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration. As you can tell, that was quite a mouthful to say! The Conference drafted a document that outlined its three main beliefs:

  • Segregation needed to end.
  • For the United States to truly be a democracy, all citizens needed to have civil rights.
  • Change should be achieved through peaceful means.

The group met again on Feb. 14, 1957, this time in New Orleans. At that second gathering, it shortened its name to the Southern Leadership Conference and established a board of directors to oversee the organization:

  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, SCLC President
  • Reverend C.K. Steele, SCLC Vice President
  • Reverend T.J. Jemison, SCLC Secretary
  • Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, SCLC Treasurer
  • Attorney I.M. Augustine, SCLC General Counsel

By August 1957, the group was ready for business and had its first official meeting that month in Montgomery, Alabama. The organization voted to change its name one last time to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a name that finally stuck! The SCLC's goals were simple:

  • Recruit affiliate civil rights groups in the South.
  • Bring an end to black disenfranchisement by increasing voting rights.
  • Promote an open-door policy to anyone interested in membership.
  • Achieve change through nonviolent resistance by peacefully refusing to obey unjust laws.

The SCLC's Goals Over Time

Throughout the 1960s, the SCLC coordinated efforts to achieve its early goals, in particular through organizing voter registration drives in places like Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the SCLC expanded its goals to reduce poverty and to bring an end to the Vietnam War.

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