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From John Lee Tilley

Tilley, John Lee
April 13, 1959
Atlanta, Ga.


Tilley resigns as executive director of SCLC in response to King’s 3 April request. He calls his work with the organization a “privilege and pleasure” but suggests 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, pose barriers to SCLC’S success.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
309 South Jackson Street
Montgomery, Alabama

Dear Dr. King:

In April of 1958, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference invited me to become its Executive Director.1 I was, at the time, serving as pastor of the New Metropolitan Baptist Church of Baltimore, Maryland. I stated that I could consider the position, only on the condition that I might serve on a part-time basis; continuing to serve the church also, part-time. It was agreed by both the Executive Board, and myself that this relationship would be temporary.

Upon my request, the New Metropolitan Baptist Church granted me a part-time leave of absence to serve S.C.L.C., despite the hardship which this arrangement would impose upon the church. So great was the concern of the membership of the church in the program and objectives of S.C.L.C., a trial period of three months was agreed upon, and was later extended.

Before giving my answer to S.C.L.C. officials regarding accepting the position offered, the Baltimore Branch of the NAACP, and Mr. Carl Murphy, president of Afro-American Newspaper, asked me to accept a position to promote voter-registration, and train persons in citizenship, in Baltimore, and the State of Maryland. This meant a continuation, on a more intensive basis, work in which I had been engaged. Although the salary offered was the same as that offered by S.C.L.C., and I could have remained at home and avoided the inconveniences and expense of living away from home, so intense was my concern and interest for the problems of Negroes in the deep South, and the challenge which S.C.L.C. presented, that I felt obligated to do what I could.

I agreed to relieve the church of financial obligations. to me, except the equivalent to the cost of my transportation to and from Atlanta. It was necessary for someone to serve in my absence. I, therefore, accepted the offer to serve as Executive Director of S.C.L.C. on a part-time basis, for a limited time. I agreed, also, to give from two-thirds to three-fourths of my time to S.C.L.C., and I have given more than three-fourths or three weeks or more per month.

During the fall of 1958, I presented my resignation to the church in order that I might give full time to the work of S.C.L.C., with no suggestion of additional salary. The church almost unaminously voted not to accept my resignation. The church asked me to propose such plans as would enable me to continue my relationship with them, even if it necessitated giving them less time, rather than sever the relationship.

In recent months, evidence of the need of the church for me to give more time than I am giving, have been apparent. At the same time, the demands of S.C.L.C. for more concentrated work, are evident. There is naturally an increased taxation upon my energies and time. This poses a problem which I had hoped to discuss with you at the first opportunity after your return from India.

For the period of approximately ten and one half (10 1/2) months that it has been my privilege and pleasure to serve and be associated with S.C.L.C., some progress has been made toward its goals. However, much remains to be achieved.

Fear and apathy on the part of the great majority of Negroes in the South in regard to voting, jealousies, and the attitude of competition on the part of many individuals and organizations, the unwillingness of many people to accept and support a new social action organization, the lack of the dramatic appeal which voting and the philosophy of non-violence present, the limited staff for the many varied demands, the non-spectacular nature of the educational process, and the lack of funds, are some factors that must be considered in working successfully to realize the goals of S.C.L.C. Like a farmer clearing a forest to plant his crops, or an engineer clearing the land and laying a foundation to construct a skyscraper building, builders of education and social action organizations such as S.C.L.C., require considerable time in laying a foundation for their work.

S.C.L.C. has the philosophy, the organizational pattern and approach which will ultimately deal effectively with the basic problems of voting and resistance to segregation, but the process will be gradual, and will require time and patience.

As you stated in your letter of April 3rd, the present status of the treasury is such, that a drastic cut in the budget, is necessary, and that the staff must be reduced. In the light of the budgetary situation, and the necessity for me to give more time to my church, I present my resignation as Executive Director, to become effective as of April 15th.

If it is your desire, at any time, that I serve S.C.L.C. in any way, such as field work in conducting a voter-registration program, or assist in clinics or workshops, or make any contacts in your behalf, feel free to call upon me.

The experience of working with you has been a pleasant and profitable one.

Respectfully yours,
[signed] John L. Tilley


1.Tilley met with SCLC’s personnel committee in Atlanta on 29 April 1958 and was likely offered the executive director post at that time; formal confirmation followed shortly thereafter (Baker to King, 24 April 1958 and 9 May 1958, and King, Draft, Letter to John Lee Tilley, 9 May 1958).


MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.