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Blake Pontchartrain: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference 

A reader asks about Central City's New Zion Baptist Church

click to enlarge New Zion Baptist Church in Central City, where the Southern Leadership Conference got its start in 1957, is still an active house of worship in New Orleans.

Photo by Kandace Power Graves

New Zion Baptist Church in Central City, where the Southern Leadership Conference got its start in 1957, is still an active house of worship in New Orleans.

Hey Blake,

I read in Clancy DuBos' column ("Now What?," Feb. 2) that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Con-ference in Central City. Where exactly did this happen?

Zane

Dear Zane,

  Many people who walk or drive past the New Zion Baptist Church at LaSalle and Third streets may not know of its importance in the history of the civil rights movement. It was at that church in 1957 that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was born.

  According to the SCLC, the idea for the group was conceived a few years earlier, following Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus, which sparked the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. It was in the months that followed that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others discussed the need for a regional organization to coordinate nonviolent protest activities across the South.

  An initial meeting was held in Atlanta before the effort moved to New Orleans. In February 1957, King and a group of about 50 African-American clergy from across the South met at New Zion Baptist Church to form what was called the Southern Leadership Conference.

  The Rev. A.L. Davis was pastor of the New Orleans church and a leading figure in the cause. Other lions of the local civil rights movement who were present at those early meetings included the Rev. Avery Alexander, a future state lawmaker; the Rev. Simmie Lee Harvey; the Rev. Morris Burrell; and attorney Israel Augustine, a future judge who was appointed the group's first general counsel.

  Later that year, the group renamed itself the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and King was elected its first president. Over the years, the group drew on the organizational power of black churches throughout the South to further its mission. The group, now headquartered in Atlanta, announced in January that it is re-establishing a chapter in Louisiana — the first fully chartered branch here in nearly 10 years.

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