The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded by a group of sixty black activists at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia in 1957. The initial purpose was to expand on the success of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-6 with campaigns throughout the country. The SCLC was founded with Martin Luther King Jr. as its leader, and with the organizational assistance of Stanley Levison, a Jewish lawyer from New York, Bayard Rustin, Executive Director of the War Resister’s League, and Ella Baker, formerly of the NAACP.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, SCLC led protest movement of varying efficacy throughout the South. In 1960, the organization helped to coordinate the burgeoning sit-in movement throughout the country. In 1961 and 1962, the organization led a movement in Albany, Georgia with limited success. However, the Birmingham, Alabama movement of 1963 established the organization, and especially King, as effective non-violent activists. Shortly thereafter, SCLC participated in the successful March on Washington, attended by about 250,000 people. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech remains one of the most popular speeches in American history.
The organization moved its forces to Selma, Alabama in 1965, where the brutality of local police led to nationwide outrage and support for voting rights legislation. After a string of successes, the SCLC launched its People to People tour in an effort to begin confronting the problems of black residents in Northern cities. After this tour, SCLC decided to launch its first major Northern effort in Chicago. Before arriving, SCLC formed important alliances with local groups, most importantly the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, in order to effectively coordinate local and national movements. Still, there were turf battles between SCLC activists and those who had been working in Chicago for longer periods of time.
The SCLC program in Chicago was experimental, as a Northern civil rights movement of this scale had never before been attempted. The problems of Northern cities were as threatening as those in the South, and at the organization’s Fall 1964 meeting, a commitment to broadening its work was made. The tactics that the SCLC had found effective in the South were not always as effective at attacking de facto segregation. For one, the cooperation of police at protests did not make non-violent action as effective as they had been in Southern campaigns. Also, the size of Northern cities, and especially Chicago, was much larger than any location where SCLC had attempted action before.
The Chicago Freedom Movement was a pivotal campaign for SCLC. The organization was turning more fully toward addressing issues of economic justice. SCLC launched the Poor People’s Campaign in late 1968, but it was unable to recover from the assassination of King. While the organization still exists today, it has yet to recover the power it had in the 1950s and 1960s.
“Bearing the Cross” by David Garrow