On January 10, 1957, following the Montgomery Bus Boycott victory and consultations with Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and others, Dr. King invited about 60 black ministers and leaders to Ebenezer Church in Atlanta. Prior to this, however, Bayard Rustin (in New York City), having conceived the idea of initiating such effort, first sought Rev. C. K. Steele to make the call and take the lead role. C. K. Steele declined, but told him he would be glad to work right beside him if he sought Dr. King in Montgomery, for the role. Their goal was to form an organization to coordinate and support nonviolent direct action as a method of desegregating bus systems across the South. In addition to Rustin and Baker, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Rev Joseph Lowery of Mobile, Rev Ralph Abernathy of Montgomery, Rev C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, all played key roles in this meeting.
On February 14, a follow-up meeting was held in New Orleans. Out of these two meetings came a new organization with Dr. King as its president. Initially called the "Negro Leaders Conference on Nonviolent Integration," then "Southern Negro Leaders Conference," the group eventually chose "Southern Christian Leadership Conference" (SCLC) as its name, and expanded its focus beyond busses to ending all forms of segregation. A small office was established on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta with Ella Baker as SCLC's first — and for a long time only — staff member.
SCLC was governed by an elected Board, and established as an organization of affiliates, most of which were either individual churches or community organizations such as the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). This organizational form differed from the NAACP and CORE who recruited individuals and formed them into local chapters.
Originally started in 1954 by Esau Jenkins and Septima Clark on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, the Citizenship Schools focused on teaching adults to read so they could pass the voter-registration literacy tests, fill out driver's license exams, use mail-order forms, and open checking accounts. Under the auspices of the Highlander Folk School (now Highlander Research and Education Center) the program was expanded across the South.
When the state of Tennessee revoked Highlander's charter and confiscated its land and property in 1961, SCLC rescued the citizenship school program and added Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson, and Andrew Young to its staff. Under the innocuous cover of adult-literacy classes, the schools secretly taught democracy and civil rights, community leadership and organizing, practical politicals, and the strategies and tactics of resistance and struggle, and in so doing built the human foundations of the mass community struggles to come.
Eventually, close to 69,000 teachers, most of them unpaid volunteers and many with little formal education, taught Citizenship Schools throughout the South. Many of the Civil Rights Movement's adult leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray, and hundreds of other local leaders in black communities across the South attended and taught citizenship schools.