The earliest roots of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) can be traced back to the bus boycotts that spread across the American South in the aftermath of Rosa Parks‘s historic arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama public bus in 1955. In January 1957, a number of boycott leaders met in Atlanta and formed an organization called the Southern Leadership Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, to coordinate anti-segregation protest activities in various locations. The following month, the group shortened its name to Southern Leadership Conference and named Martin Luther King Jr. as its president. And in August 1957 the organization adopted its current name, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to emphasize its religious moorings.
SCLC was instrumental to the success of the 1960s civil-rights movement, engineering activist campaigns that helped lay the groundwork for such legislation as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In more recent times, however, the organization has turned away from Dr. King’s colorblind ideal and embraced the identity politics of the Democratic Party. It also has become an outspoken critic of capitalism, a trend that King himself started when he addressed a number of SCLC gatherings in 1967 and: denounced “the evils of capitalism”; urged his listeners to “question the capitalistic economy” which he blamed for poverty in America; called for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power”; and asserted that “the whole structure of American life must be changed,” given the “racism, economic exploitation and militarism” that were its hallmarks.
At the suggestion of Marion Wright Edelman, King in November 1967 announced the launch of SCLC’s “Poor People’s Campaign” which sought a “middle ground between riots on the one hand and timid supplications for justice on the other.” King’s plan was to lead a group of some 2,000 poor people to meet with government ofﬁcials and demand a fair minimum wage as well as publicly funded jobs, education, and unemployment insurance. After King’s assassination in April 1968, SCLC proceeded with the campaign under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy, who succeeded King as president of the organization.
After Abernathy stepped down in 1977, SCLC’s subsequent presidents were Joseph Lowery (1977-97), Martin Luther King III (1997-2004), Fred Shuttlesworth (2004), Charles Steele Jr. (2004-09), Byron Clay (2009), Howard Creecy Jr. (2009-11), Isaac Newton Farris Jr. (2011-12), and C.T. Vivian (2012-present).
Today, SCLC consists of numerous localized chapters and affiliates across the United States. Its organizational priorities are to: “ensure economic justice and civil rights in the areas of discrimination and affirmative action”; “eradicate environmental classism and racism wherever it exists”; “stand as an advocate for those on the margins of society”; and “awaken and strengthen the moral conscience of this country to the growing catastrophe of childhood incarceration and the obvious social unrest in under-funded and developing socioeconomic areas in rural or urban centers.”
Over the years, SCLC has been an outspoken defender of Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement activist who is serving a life sentence in prison for the 1975 murders of two FBI officers. SCLC views Peltier as a political prisoner who should be released immediately.
Similarly, former SCLC president Martin Luther King III has emphasized the organization’s longstanding “commitment to justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal,” the convicted cop-killer and former Black Panther. Blaming “bias in the criminal justice system” for Mumia’s conviction, King has referred to Mumia as “an innocent man” and “our brother.” “We must stand by Abu-Jamal’s side just as we stood by the sides of Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Ben Chavis, and Joann Little,” says King.
In August 2003, SCLC issued a press release declaring its intention to take a “stand against increased U.S. militarism, racism, class warfare, the destruction of the environment and a so-called ‘War on Terrorism’ that justifies the arrests of innocent people and instills fear in all Americans.”
In the run-up to the 2004 U.S. presidential election, SCLC, paying no heed to its founder’s counsel against trying to “influence” people “to vote for any particular party,” rallied support for Democratic candidate John Kerry. Alleging that African Americans had been disenfranchised en masse in the Florida recount controversy of 2000, the organization unveiled a get-out-the-vote drive in Florida, under the banner of a “Truth and Justice Campaign.” SCLC also took its campaign to college campuses and even prisons, sponsoring a “Democracy Behind Bars” initiative to register jailed blacks who were eligible to vote.
Just days after President George W. Bush’s November 2004 re-election, SCLC underwent a public-relations crisis when Fred Shuttlesworth resigned his post as interim president, stating that “[f]or years, deceit, mistrust and a lack of spiritual discipline and truth have eaten away at the core of this once-hallowed organization.” He accused SCLC leadership—specifically, vice chairman Raleigh Trammell—of financial mismanagement and personal impropriety. Those charges provoked an indignant and invective-laden inter-office memo from Trammel: “If I decide to curse you out nigga, I will…. [As] for you, you are still a bastard.”
In April 2015, SCLC terminated Sam Mosteller as president of its Georgia chapter, after he advised “all African-Americans [to] advocate their Second Amendment right” in order to protect themselves from predators and criminals.
In July 2015, SCLC hosted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for a speech in which he repeatedly condemned America for its “structural racism” and its “grotesque level of income and wealth inequality.”
One of SCLC’s major initiatives today is its Justice For Girls campaign, which uses seminars, workshops, public forums, roundtable discussions, and partnerships with other organizations to increase awareness of sex-trafficking of children in the United States. Another major SCLC program is a Poor People’s Campaign that aims to “eradicate extreme poverty” internationally.
SCLC is unequivocally opposed to capital punishment, on grounds that it is both immoral and disproportionately applied against black convicts.
SCLC promotes its political views and agendas through its in-house periodical, SCLC Magazine, which has been published quarterly since 1971 and claims a readership of 400,000. Moreover, each year SCLC and the Women’s Organizational Movement For Equality Now hold a “Drum Major for Justice Awards Dinner” to pay tribute to “individuals who have made major contributions advancing the social justice cause in their respective fields.”
SCLC has received funding from numerous charitable foundations, among which are the Bank of America Foundation, the Fannie Mae Foundation, the Turner Foundation, and the Verizon Foundation. The organization also gets financial backing from numerous corporate sponsors.
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