With Little Fanfare SCLC Turned 60 This Year
With little fanfare, this year, SCLC reached 60 Years of service to humanity.
January this year marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This conference of Christian brothers and sisters grew out of a profound need to remove the political, social and economic shackles from descendants of people who had been forcibly removed from their home in Africa in the 15th, 16th and especially the 17th century; and brought to what would become the United States of America.
As the Southern Christian Leadership Conference commemorates 60 years of service to humankind, we must not forget what America looked like prior to February 15, 1957.
Following a period of enslavement, a cast system was put in place, an American system of apartheid that relegated her Black citizens to a second-class tier of citizenship. Throughout the southern states in America, the darker races of men and women lived separated from their lighter brothers and sisters. The rules which separated the white and black communities in the south, while less talked about were subtly present in the north, east and the west.
In 1857, just 100 years and 34 days before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was organized under the name of the Southern Negro Leadership Conference for Integration, the nation’s Supreme Court issued a devastating blow to equality in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney essentially ruled, since black people were not considered persons in 1787 (200 years before the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) when the country’s governing document was being debated, “A Black man had no rights that a white man was bound to respect.”
In 1895, the nation’s Supreme Court buttressed the dictum enunciated in the Dred Scott case in an equally devastating decree in the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson case, which made segregation the law of the land. It was difficult for people of color to advance in America under a legal scheme built upon precedent after precedent of unequal treatment of Black people under the law.
Although, by the sheer force of will there had been minuscule advancements, the Tuskegee scientist, George Washington Carver had saved the agriculture of the south; Negroes had flown fighter planes during World War II; the Montford Point Marines proved that Black men could be successful in the U. S. Marine Corp. Jackie Robinson had stolen home plate in the white major league World Series, and Jack Johnson and Joe Louis had knocked out white fighters in the boxing ring.
And while the Harlem Renaissance bristled with success and “Sweet Auburn” Avenue in Atlanta featured a Black lawyer (A. T. Austin) who had his own high rise office building, much of the Black community lived well below the poverty line and was not shown the simplest of courtesies in discourse with white merchants and others.
Such are the historical foundations that birthed not only the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but what history records as the “civil rights movement.”
You know the story, our dear leader, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., coming off a successful boycott of the segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus system, called a group of 60 ministers together. They met in Atlanta, Georgia in January 1957.
Bayard Rustin, the political architect of the movement for civil justice, posited that what was missing was an organization that could mobilize preexisting organizations in black communities throughout the south to fight for integration of all public accommodations. It was agreed that the group would reconvene in New Orleans in a couple of weeks to finalize the details of this new organization.
During the interval between the initial meeting and the organizational meeting, Dr. King pondered how he could expand the reach of this new organization. He envisioned a broader reach for this movement, one that could attract support throughout the country and globally. Thus Christian was substituted for the word Negro and the goal of integration was removed from the organization’s name. This name change was a precursor of where Dr. King was heading before his assassination. He believed that a true campaign for social justice had to be ready to fight injustice anywhere it was found.
If Rustin was the organizational genius who brought these diverse communities together, King was the general who could move this battalion in the war for peace. He knew it was important to expose the brutality of the American system of segregation to the world in order to get America to change.
As people around the world began to express shock at the treatment of Negroes in their fight for equality, they started to question America about its foreign policies in their country. Additionally, the grass roots in these countries began to look to the American Negro as a source of inspiration in overthrowing the shackles of colonialism and oppression in their own countries.
Dr. King realized that a child with a hungry stomach in an American ghetto was no different than a child with a hungry stomach in Brazil or the British Isles. Just hours before his death, he instructed his aide, Dr. Bernard LaFayette from Selma, Alabama to begin plans to take the mission of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference internationally.
Dr. LaFayette has been traveling the world holding workshops where he teaches the Kingian Theory of Civil Disobedience. So too has Dr. Charles Steele, Jr., the current President and Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Dr. Steele has built an international headquarters less than 100 steps from the offices where Dr. King shook the conscience of America regarding her treatment of Black people. This facility serves as an anchor that bridges the first 50 years and the 50 years to come.
While building that bridge to 2057, Steele often reminds us that as hard as it was to obtain a semblance of civil rights in America, those hardships pale in comparison to the difficulties that lie ahead in maintaining the gains of the past 60 years, and of the need to globalize the struggle for human and civil rights all over the world.
Sixty years after the birth of this noble organization, Steele is on the case to maintain the legacy of SCLC’s first and perhaps greatest president, along with honoring the sacrifices made by people like Ralph David Abernathy, Ella Baker, Dr. Joseph Lowery, C. T. Vivian, Rev. Howard Creecy and countless others who toiled without recognition or reward. “I am honored to sit in the seat that Dr. King sat in and to have this awesome opportunity to spread his message of non- violent reconciliation around the world,” Steele said.
May God bless his mission and bless the legacy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper Puzzle and Justice in the Round, Easier to obtain Than to Maintain: The Globalization of Civil Rights by Charles Steele, Jr.; and the host of Beyond the Law with Harold Michael Harvey. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.