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.
When he returned from India, King began to commit himself more fully to the SCLC. He admitted that the Crusade for Citizenship had been a failure, and left his church in Montgomery to move back to Atlanta (SCLC headquarters) at the end of 1959. There he resumed his position of assistant pastor under his father at Ebenezer Church, which freed him from the responsibilities of a full-time minister.
The move was well timed, as that winter there occurred a spontaneous campaign of sit-ins, which began at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and which spread to scores of Southern cities. African American college students, tired of segregated public facilities, protested with their peaceful presences. The campaign clearly was inspired by tactics associated with King, and the SCLC became directly involved in April, when Ella Baker helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Later that year, King himself participated in sit-ins in an Atlanta department store, and was arrested. Despite his support and defense of the student actions, some of the protestors disassociated themselves from King, claiming that he was more talk than act, and furthermore, that he took the credit, in terms of money and fame, that others earned through sacrifice. This impression only deepened when King, through the help of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, left the Atlanta jail early. Among the more strident members of SNCC, one's time in jail measured one's devotion to the cause. And the fact that Kennedy agreed to help King was a testament to King's rather mainstream appeal, for Kennedy needed the votes of white Southerners; many blacks now felt that if King could appeal to these white voters, he was not representing them truly.
Versions of this criticism–that King compromised with whites, and used his prominence to exempt himself from the tests of dedicationfollowed him throughout his career. King, however, seemed always to consider how he could best serve the movement, and rightly believed that he could be most effective out of jail. King attracted further criticism for what, by this time, was his strict adherence to principles of absolute pacifism, a course not popular with some members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, despite the name of their organization.