This Month in Black History: SCLC founded in 1957

By Kalin Thomas Contributing Writer | 3/8/2013, noon
Archival letters, photos and flyers from the civil rights movement are part of an exhibit called “And the Struggle Continues: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Fight for Social Change,” which opens Feb. 21 at Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library and run through Dec. 1. (Courtesy photos).

Despite the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution from 1865-1870, African Americans were still living separate-and-unequal lives nearly 100 years later.

The heroic efforts of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black unit of military pilots who fought in WWII, set the scene for the 1948 desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954 brought down the “separate but equal” doctrine for educating black children.

And the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 – a planned protest of segregated buses, initiated by Rosa Parks’ infamous refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger – ended after 381 days with the desegregation of the Montgomery bus system.

But across the South, there were still “white” and “colored” signs hanging over schools, businesses, bus stations, restrooms and water fountains – and America’s black citizens were still seen as second-class.

To help overcome such blatant discrimination, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin approached leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association – including members Rev. C.K. Steele, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Ella Baker – to form a regional organization and coordinate protest activities across the South.

After Steele declined to head the organization, King took the lead and in January 1957 invited 60 black ministers and other leaders to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he was assistant pastor, to announce the founding of a new activist group, the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration.

Weeks later, on Feb. 14, 1957 the organization shortened its name to Southern Leadership Conference at a meeting in New Orleans. And at its first convention in Montgomery that August, the group adopted its current name, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and made mass nonviolent action and civil disobedience its cornerstone strategy.

The organization’s goals were to uplift African Americans while fighting segregation, discrimination and civil rights violations.

From the beginning, the SCLC took criticism from both sides with some saying they were too radical, while others said they were too timid.

Today the international organization of “foot soldiers” is trying to get its footing back after recent years of infighting among its leaders.

It recently announced the re-launch of its “Stop the Violence” initiative that focuses on youth violence, gun violence and sex trafficking of young girls and boys.

Officials say they are still leading the charge for human and civil rights through nonviolent mass action.

‘And The Struggle Continues,’

an SCLC exhibit, opens Feb. 21

The exhibit “And the Struggle Continues: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Fight for Social Change” will open Feb. 21 at Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library and run through Dec. 1.

The documents on display include letters, photographs and flyers promoting gatherings and protests from the 1960’s through the 1990’s, beginning with the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968.

There will be an opening celebration on Feb. 22, including a lecture, discussion and book signing by SCLC leader Dorothy Cotton from noon to 2 p.m.; and remarks by civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and SCLC leaders including: SCLC President Rev. C.T. Vivian, SCLC CEO Dr. Charles Steele Jr. and SCLC Board Chair Dr. Bernard Lafayette.