Activating Faith: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference Fights for Freedom

*By Lucianne Nelson
Time Period: Civil Rights Era, 1955-1970s
Location: United States
Main Actors: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); affiliate churches; Civil Rights organizers
Protest–teach-ins to educate and encourage participation
Mass action–sharing information and raising awareness
Boycotts–refusal to purchase certain goods or utilize services

Following the success of the Montgomery bus boycotts, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin identified a need for a central organization to coordinate and support nonviolent direct action across the South. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., consulting with Rustin, invited other Black leaders and ministers to establish a coalition to leverage Black churches’ influential networks, independence, and influence as a force against segregation. Together, they established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. The SCLC framed the (mis)treatment of “Negroes [as] a basic spiritual problem,” and the organization called on churches to “delve deeper into the struggle [for desegregation] and to do so with greater reliance on nonviolence and with greater unity, coordination, sharing and Christian understanding.” Unlike other umbrella groups that recruited individual members, the SCLC leveraged the collective impact of faith communities to fight segregation and advocate for voting rights. The SCLC’s work was critical to the Civil Rights movement.

The SCLC began its first major campaign, the Crusade for Citizenship, in late 1957. The crusade was developed in August 1957 in response to pending civil rights legislation in Congress. The main objective was to register thousands of Black voters – historically targeted with violence and disenfranchised – in time for the 1958 and 1960 elections. The Crusade raised awareness among Black Americans that “their chances for improvement rest on their ability to vote.” Funded by donations from local churches and other private donors, the SCLC established voter education clinics throughout the South. While the SCLC did not achieve its ambition of doubling the number of Black voters in the 1958 and 1960 elections, the Crusade did accomplish the SCLC’s overarching goal of consolidating churches and regional organizations into a movement.

SCLC campaigns that focused on the desegregation of individual cities were more successful. The SCLC joined local movements in Albany, GA, Birmingham, AL, and St. Augustine, FL to coordinate mass protests and nonviolent civil disobedience. In 1963, the SCLC’s Alabama affiliate wrote that the Birmingham campaign was “a moral witness to give our community a chance to survive.” SCLC members educated Black citizens about the philosophy and strategies of nonviolence and nonviolent action and appealed for volunteers. The SCLC relied on tactics such as mass meetings, direct actions, lunch counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and boycotts of local merchants. The desegregation campaigns expanded to include additional tactics like kneel-ins at churches, sit-ins at libraries, and marches to register voters. Because of these campaigns, the organization quickly moved to the forefront of the civil rights movement.

The SCLC reflected Dr. King’s belief that the Christian faith entailed a responsibility to reform unjust laws and policies. However, the SCLC’s position that churches had a spiritual imperative to be politically engaged—especially in pursuit of racial equality—was controversial. Even some Black religious leaders opposed SCLC’s overt call to activism because they considered segregation a “social” issue that fell outside the scope of the church’s mission. The SCLC largely failed to attract moderate white churches for similar reasons. While some Christian progressives challenged white supremacy, this support was often clustered at white seminaries, in denominational headquarters, and on the foreign mission field. Billy Graham, a highly visible white Christian evangelist, supported some measures of desegregation but kept his support for the SCLC private. Oral histories and contemporary documentation indicate that, even when white pastors did attempt to affiliate with the SCLC, their congregations rejected and undermined those efforts. As a result, very few white churches officially joined the SCLC. 

Though the SCLC did not convince many white churches to join its coalition, it was nevertheless successful in recruiting white Christians (and Jews) on an individual level. Reverend Hosea Williams, who had been joined by white college students for various short-term civil rights projects facilitated by local SCLC affiliates, developed an idea to connect teams of young, white volunteers with Black churches. This grew into the SCLC’s Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) Project, a voter registration and civil rights initiative. The SCOPE project began in 1965 and deployed 500 white college volunteers (from nearly 100 universities) across six Southern states to areas where local Black leaders had requested aid from the SCLC. The Black church provided a network of homes for SCOPE volunteers to stay at while they registered voters and provided civic literacy classes. 

These white college students provided critical support that helped the SCLC and Black churches accomplish grassroots change. SCOPE volunteers reported violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Based on this information, the Department of Justice conducted targeted investigations and sent additional support to counties that had denied Black peoples’ rights to vote. SCOPE alumni include activist Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, and evangelical pastors. By inviting young, white people to act on their faith directly, the SCLC found a creative alternative to white churches’ resistance. In this way, the SCLC maximized the collective impact and influence of religion. The SCOPE Project offers an interesting model for re-routing individual “defectors” or dissidents toward changemaking initiatives and for supporting them in taking actions of courage beyond their religious communities. 

A vibrant pro-democracy movement can engage and deploy individuals to protest, boycott, and participate in mass action but these tactics are most powerful when there is well-resourced scaffolding backing up public action. The SCLC recognized that churches can provide crucial infrastructure and networks of support for coalition building. The work of preserving and revitalizing American democracy relies on both the responsiveness of individual activists and advocates and a more sustained response by formal organizations. This case demonstrates how faith communities can strengthen and reinforce pro-democracy movements. 

Where to Learn More
SCLC History
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
– Carolyn Dupont, Mississippi Praying (2015)

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