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Martin Luther King, Jr.


The Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Summary The Southern Christian Leadership Conference

After the Montgomery Bus Boycott King's course was set. He was an activist before a scholar; he knew his tactics and his goals. Not until 1963 would he and his followers win another major victory, however, and the late 1950s were a time of preparation, misfires, partial victories, and many lessons.

In early January 1957 the leaders behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott assembled in Atlanta, Georgia, and founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC. The SCLC comprised churches and clergy from across the South, and was created to coordinate protests inspired by the success of the bus boycott. As its president the SCLC elected King, for he had had played a large part in its creation, and had, from the beginning, embodied the outlook and intellectual spirit of the group. He did much of the SCLC's fundraising by preaching and speaking in the North as well as South.

Although the SCLC was an explicitly Christian organization, King had been encouraged to form it by Bayard Rustin, an activist with communist sympathies who had helped with the effort in Montgomery. Rustin was one of a few non-clergy activists who affected King's career. He, along with white Jewish radical Stanley Levison (also of communist affiliations), and black social activist Ella Barker, who had worked extensively with the NAACP in the 1940s, guided King's career, helping him organize events and write letters, speeches, and books. King's association with Levison, which strengthened early in 1957, drew the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI under President Eisenhower. The FBI monitored and even harassed King from this point on, at times attempting to sabotage his public actions through blackmail. It is probable that King had affairs, and the FBI's claim to know of these increased their power over him.

In February of 1957 the SCLC sent a message to Eisenhower, drafted by Levison and Rustin, requesting that the White House hold a conference on civil rights. It was ignored by Eisenhower, but caught the attention of the mass media. Time magazine featured King on its cover, reinforcing the fame brought him by the bus boycott. King's prominence also landed him an invitation to celebrations of the independence of the African nation of Ghana from British colonial rule, an invitation King accepted.

In May, King again made a national appearance, speaking at a rally of almost forty thousand people in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The occasion marked the third anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling and examined its limited practical effects. Late in 1957 King launched through the SCLC the "Crusade for Citizenship," a program intended to help register two million black voters in time for the 1960 presidential election. The campaign was over-ambitious, and its failure made clear to the SCLC that cooperation with other black civil rights groups was imperative for success.

Major events of this period of King's life outside the SCLC included the birth of his and Coretta's second child, Martin Luther King III, on 23 October, 1957, and King's writing and publication of Stride Toward Freedom (1958), an account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The book sold well, and inspired other African Americans to action. King promoted the book during his speaking engagements, which continued. At a book-signing in Harlem, he was stabbed by a mentally ill black woman, and survived only because the weapon–a letter opener- -slid between his heart and one of his lungs. As part of his convalescence, King took a trip to India in February 1959, where he furthered his knowledge of non-violent tactics at the Gandhi Peace Foundation.

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