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.