An ecumenical organization comprised of most of the mainline Protestant denominations, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in America (NCC) represented a moderate view toward race relations in America since its inception in 1950, and supported many of Martin Luther King’s major campaigns.
The NCC’s formation resulted from a merger of several Protestant umbrella organizations. One of them, the Federal Council of Churches, was founded in 1908, and initiated Race Relations Sunday in 1922, an effort by churches to focus the second Sunday of February every year on race issues. The NCC continued this tradition and, during the 1950s, the pamphlets produced by the NCC for Race Relations Sunday contained a “Call to Action” that promoted individual and political approaches toward addressing race in America.
During the Montgomery bus boycott, the NCC sent a telegram reassuring Montgomery ministers of its support, calling segregation “a violation of the Gospel of love and human brotherhood” (Blake, 25 February 1956). In early 1957 the NCC also criticized President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to condemn the rise of violence against Southern blacks and circulated the call for the May 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom held by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Following his rise to prominence in Montgomery, King became closely aligned with the NCC. He contributed to the NCC’s 1957 Race Relations Sunday message, “For All … A Non-Segregated Society,” writing: “Racial segregation is a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ. Segregation is a tragic evil that is utterly un-Christian” (Papers 4:124). He also delivered two addresses during the 1957 NCC annual meeting. King charged: “All too many ministers are still silent while evil rages,” but praised the NCC’s stand against segregation and noted that such instances “are still far too few” (Papers 6:326).
In 1961 Andrew Young left a position with the NCC’s youth education office to help run the SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program, and later he became SCLC’s executive director. The next year King agreed to serve on the steering committee of the NCC-sponsored National Conference on Religion and Race. King spoke on the last day of the conference, stating: “Honesty impels us to admit that religious bodies in America have not been faithful to their prophetic mission on the question of racial justice. In the midst of a nation rife with racial animosity, the Church too often has been content to mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” (King, 17 January 1963). NCC put pressure on legislators to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was an early critic of the Vietnam War. The organization also supported the Poor People’s Campaign, one of King’s last major initiatives.
Eugene Carson Blake to Solomon Seay, 25 February 1956, NCCR-PPPrHi.
George Dugan, “Church Council Asks U.S. to Halt Vietnam Bombing,” New York Times, 4 December 1965.
Introduction, in Papers 4:14–15.
King, “A Challenge to the Churches and Synagogues,” 17 January 1963, MCMLK-RWWL.
King, The Christian Way of Life in Human Relations, Address Delivered at the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches, 4 December 1957, in Papers 6:322–328.
King, The Crisis in America’s Cities, Address at SCLC’s Eleventh Annual Convention, 15 August 1967, WPRC-MiDW-AL.
King, “For All … A Non-Segregated Society,” A Message for Race Relations Sunday, 10 February 1957, in Papers 4:123–125.
O. Frederick Nolde, That All May Be One: A Message for Race Relations Sunday (New York: National Council of Churches of Christ, 8 February 1953), CSKC.