The SCLC & the Civil Rights Movement: Definition & History

Instructor: Mark Bound

Mark has taught graduate level political science and sociology and has a Ph.D. in International Conflict Analysis and Resolution

This lesson examines the roots of the Civil Rights Movement, which rallied against the programs of exclusion of black citizens within U.S. society, and the beginning history of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was founded in 1957 and played an important role in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while reacting to end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the SCLC was an organization primarily comprised of southern African American church leaders, dedicated to combating racism through nonviolent group protests.

This lesson will cover the history and relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the SCLC.

Origins of the Civil Rights Movement and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Following the American Civil War (1861-1865), slaves were technically freed in the United States; however, freedom for African Americans did not directly translate into acceptance and equality. These were serious problems as black Americans found themselves discriminated against in all aspects of society. Discriminatory legislation would restrict black voting rights, equal access to housing and education, and access to public facilities and services.

Black Americans were not allowed, in many places, to used the same public restrooms or drinking fountains as white Americans. Justification for these practices was based upon the concept of separate but equal, which argued that so long as a separate service was available, regardless of the quality, social responsibility was met.

From these problems the American Civil Rights Movement originated and the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference emerged. The Civil Rights Movement or the African American Civil Rights Movement, as it is also known, was a social undertaking intended to end racism, discrimination, and segregation (the unequal treatment of blacks within the American society). Members of the African American community, both individuals and groups, rather than violently protesting their unfair treatment, engaging in acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience.

The Organization of the SCLC

In January of 1957, Dr. King invited more than 50 black ministers and community leaders to a meeting at the Ebenezer Church in Atlanta to create the organization and formalize strategies. In February of that same year, another meeting held in New Orleans would finalize the creation of the SCLC with Dr. King as its first president, a post which he would serve until his death in 1968.

Political and Financial Support for the SCLC

As the movement progressed through the 1960s, support for the movement's goals increased. Political support came from notable white politicians, such as President Lyndon B. Johnson. Financially, the Civil Rights Movement was supported by the major religious denominations and labor unions. From the Civil Rights Movement, numerous activist groups arose supporting desegregation and social equality.

Problems with Church Involvement in the SCLC

The SCLC did not enjoy widespread support from all within the black or white community. Many who supported the goals of the organization, opposed the methods and the participation of the churches. Although Dr. King and his supporters believed that religious organizations were important catalysts for political activism, many church leaders rejected this principle. Those that rejected churches as political focal points argued that it was the churches responsibility to engage in spiritual and charity support of the affected congregations, and the engagement in political activism could endanger these goals.

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