The early days of the American Civil Rights movement were days of non-violent protests. The simple acts, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Marches, used large numbers of Black Americans in ways that affected the white establishment economically and morally to achieve change. However, as the movement went on, increasing numbers of Black Americans began to become disenfranchised with the non-violence, and almost placating nature of the movement under Martin Luther King Jr. and others.
The many and diverse organizations that were created during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, each, in their own ways, effected the outcome of that decade. Some of the organizations based their philosophies on empowerment, others on revenge, and still others on the legal advocacy of oppressed individuals. However, one group, in particular, was involved in the most trying and violent events of the movement – and maintained their stand for non-violent protest to effect change.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. The organization functioned as “as an umbrella organization of affiliates, rather than seeking individual membership”. (King Encyclopedia) This allowed the SCLC to gain influence in multiple states. King used the ability of the SCLC to enter the fray of Birmingham Alabama in 1963.
The union of blacks churches throughout the Southern States, allowed for a strong base of support for King’s non-violent confrontation of the white establishment. Though his work would see him arrested, and many of his fellow protestors beaten, injured and even hospitalized, the basic ideal of the SCLC never wavered.
During the height of the civil rights movement, the rise of the concept of Black Power – a more militant and empowered movement – began to take hold in many American cities. The direct assault on the established power of white America that the Black Panther Party promised influenced many young blacks to follow their ideology. This became a struggling point for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in that their strict adherence to the non-violent messages of Martin Luther King Jr. were increasingly being seen as weak. Also, the dependence that the SCLC had on the white churches of the South was also seen as a problem point for many in the movement.
Despite the hurdles that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was forced to confront, they ideology of King’s vision was maintained – even after his assassination. The death of King was a strong blow against the organization. The momentum that the group had gained under the guidance of Martin Luther King Jr. was stalled and the group nearly imploded. However, the words of King lived on through his death. In his final speech, the evening before his murder, King rallied the minds and emotions of his followers.
The words of the speech, which came to be known as the “Promised Land” speech, spoke of his eventual death. Through his final words, King told his followers that the life of a man is meaningless without that man having lived up to his potential.
The work of King, and the SCLC, continues to this day. And though, there are organizations which are more recognized, such as the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference confronted the face of oppression directly, and without violent retaliation. The ability for the organization to achieve its goals, and see the world that King envisioned, allows them to be seen as the most effective of the era.
Allen Matusow. From Civil Rights to Black Power, in Bernstein and Matusow, eds., Twentieth Century America: Recent Interpretations.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference: SCLC. The King Encyclopedia. The King Center. Date of Access: August 5, 2007. URL:http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/about_king/encyclopedia/enc_SCLC.htm
William L. Van Deburg. (1992). New Day in Babylon: The Black Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.