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A study of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the rise and fall of the nonviolent civil rights movement

Fairclough, Adam

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Adam Fairclough


Despite its lack of membership and vague organizational structure, the Southern Christian leadership Conference was the most effective of the various groups which composed the Southern civil rights movement: the SCLC's campaigns in Birmingham and Selma furnished the impetus for the passage of both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In both campaigns the SCLC extricated the civil rights movement from a tactical impasse, provided it with fresh momentum, and allied it with new sources of white support.
The effectiveness of the SCLC had a number of causes. Almost entirely made up of ministers, the Conference was uniquely equipped to draw upon the spiritual and material resources of the black church; its religious roots also gave immense popularity and personal authority to Martin Luther King, Jr., and accorded the tactics of nonviolent direct action an unassailable moral legitimacy. In its application of nonviolent direct action the SCLC exhibited a tactical skill and political sophistication which enabled it to defeat the forces of white supremacy by exposing their violence to the hostile glare of national and international publicity. Aware that a reform of the South required the assent of the white majority, the SCLC solved the dilemma of black powerlessness by Ly-passing the established political and judicial institutions, and appealing directly to Northern public opinion. Possessed of a keen sense of political realism, King and his lieutenants maintained a subtle balance between pressure and persuasion in their use of nonviolent direct action.
The SCLC failed to repeat its success in the North because, its demands bitterly opposed by the white majority, it could no longer command significant white support; in Chicago, the federal government was no longer a sympathetic ally. In addition, urban riots, the emergence of Black Power and the war in Vietnam exacerbated both the "white backlash" and the internal disarray of the civil rights movement. After the failure of the Chicago campaign, the principal achievements of the SCLC were the strengthening of the peace movement, the development of the idea of "Poor People*s Power" and the consolidation of the gains won in the South.
The bankruptcy of black separatism, and the steady growth of integration and black political power in the South, indicate that the accomplishment of the SCLC and the nonviolent civil rights movement should not be lightly dismissed.

Publication Date Jan 1, 1977


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