In April 1958 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) asked John Lee Tilley, pastor of New Metropolitan Baptist Church in Baltimore, to become the organization’s first executive director. Responding to Tilley’s appointment, Martin Luther King described him as a “very able man with a great deal of experience and know-how in the area of Human Relations” (King, 9 July 1958). Within one year of Tilley’s selection, however, King asked the minister to submit his resignation.
Born in Stem, North Carolina, Tilley received his AB (1925) from Shaw University and his PhB (1927) from the University of Chicago. He later received his MA (1933) at the University of Chicago and his DD (1933) from Shaw, before being named the first dean of Shaw’s School of Religion. He left Shaw in 1944, when he became president of Florida Normal and Industrial College in St. Augustine, a position he held until 1951, when he became pastor of New Metropolitan Baptist Church. Before his appointment to serve as SCLC executive director, Tilley chaired both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Register and Vote Campaign and the Baltimore NAACP’s Labor Committee. Because of his many commitments, Tilley initially accepted the SCLC position on a part-time basis.
In Tilley’s first year as executive director, tensions rose when an SCLC supporter complained of Tilley’s inability to devote sufficient time to Atlanta’s voter registration drive. Knowing of Tilley’s part-time status with SCLC, King defended his executive director. “Dr. Tilley is a man of wide experience,” King boasted, “having [led] the city of Baltimore in one of the most successful voting drives to date” (Papers 5:115). Three months later, on 3 April 1959, King asked for Tilley’s resignation because SCLC’s Crusade for Citizenship program was stalled and its treasury overextended. Writing on behalf of SCLC’s administrative committee, King noted: “We had hoped that our program would be well developed by now, and that the aims and purposes of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would have been well established in the minds and hearts of the people all over the nation by this time” (Papers 5:180). In closing, King thanked Tilley and hoped that the “present crisis, will not in any way cause you to sever your interest and affection from our conference” (Papers 5:180).
On 13 April 1959 Tilley complied with King’s request, reminding the SCLC president of his initial agreement to serve as executive director on a temporary and part-time basis. Calling his work with SCLC a “privilege and pleasure,” Tilley suggested that “fear and apathy … in regard to voting, jealousies, and the attitude of competition on the part of many individuals and organizations,” as well as a lack of sufficient funds and staffing, posed barriers to SCLC’s success (Papers 5:183–184). In closing, Tilley offered his services to SCLC at a later date if the organization so desired.
In 1961 Tilley returned to Shaw University as the director of public relations and alumni affairs. From 1964 to 1970 he was a visiting lecturer at Howard University’s School of Religion. He died on 28 April 1971 in Baltimore.