The SCLC was founded in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church and advocated confrontation of segregation through civil dissent. This "direct action" included boycotts, marches, and other forms of nonviolent protest and was considered controversial by many in the black community, who felt that segregation should be challenged in the courts. The SCLC's leadership, most of whom were ministers, also believed that churches should be involved in political activism and held many of their meetings at black churches, which became important symbols in the battle for civil rights.
The organization quickly moved to the forefront of the civil rights movement alongside several other major civil rights groups collectively known as the "Big Five:" the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League (NUL), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) .
From the beginning, the SCLC focused its efforts on citizenship schools and efforts to desegregate individual cities such as Albany, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama, and St. Augustine, Florida. It played key roles in the March on Washington in 1963 and the Selma Voting Rights Campaign and March to Montgomery in 1965. The SCLC also broadened its focus to include issues of economic inequality, starting the Poor People's Campaign in 1967.
Martin Luther King, Jr. served as the organization's first president from its founding until his assassination in 1968. King was succeeded by Ralph Abernathy who served as president until 1977, and James Lowery who served until 1997. Today, the SCLC is still active as a national and international human rights organization.