Did You Know...? Ten Nonprofits that Shaped the Life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Did you know that hundreds of nonprofit organizations helped make Dr. King who he was? And do you know what they're up to today?

Do you know...

1. Which national nonprofit did Martin Luther King Jr. join as an undergraduate student?

Alpha Phi Alpha

Today, Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest of the African American college fraternities, counts among its members elected officials, elite athletes, community activists and scholars, many of whom have gone on to lead other nonprofit organizations. The "Alphas" are helping to lead a campaign for a Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, DC.

2. Which nonprofit was one of Dr. King's earliest partners in the quest for civil rights?

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

The 1700 chapters of the nation's oldest civil rights organization, now known simply as NAACP, will celebrate the organization's 100th birthday next month (see poster above).

3. Which nonprofit was the first to launch the Montgomery bus boycott that ultimately brought Dr. King to prominence?

Women's Political Council

African American women in Montgomery, Alabama, formed the Women's Political Council in the mid-1940s. They tried to end bus segregation through advocacy with the local mayor. When that didn't work, they laid plans for a bus boycott. After Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat, it was the council that sent out the call for action. Later, much of the boycott organizing was taken over by the Montgomery Improvement Association.

4. Which nonprofit did Dr. King became president of in 1957?

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

SCLC President Emeritus Reverend Joseph Lowery, 87, will deliver the benediction at the January 20 presidential inaugural. Today SCLC continues to maintain nearly 60 chapters.

5. Which nonprofit provided a site for training and meetings for Dr. King and his colleagues in South Carolina?

The Penn Community Services Center

The Penn Center, on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, once a school for freed slaves, still welcomes nonprofits who use its facilities for retreats and training sessions. The center educates the public about the vibrant heritage of the South Carolina sea islands and the islands' Gullah people.

6. Which nonprofit spearheaded a protest of more than 125,000 people featuring Dr. King BEFORE the famous March on Washington?

Detroit Council for Human Rights

Prominent clergymen, elected officials and trade unionists organized the 1963 Great March to Freedom under the auspices of the council to commemorate the 1943 Detroit race riots and the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The seeds of Dr. King's most famous speech were uttered at the Detroit event, where he told participants "I have a dream."

7. Which nonprofit played a key role in encouraging Dr. King to speak out on international concerns?

American Committee on Africa (ACOA)

Dr. King first worked with ACOA to speak out in support of Algerian independence from France in 1959. Over the years, he collaborated frequently with this New York-based group to call for international human rights. ACOA's work continues through the group Africa Action, formed in 2001 from a merger of ACOA and two other groups.

8. Which nonprofit helped lift the spirits of Dr. King and his followers?

SNCC Freedom Singers

Dr. King emphasized the importance of song in the southern freedom movement. This a capella singing group raised funds and inspired civil rights activists at meetings and protests. Today, the SNCC Freedom Singers live on, especially through the music of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock, founded by freedom singer Bernice Johnson Reagon.

9. Through membership in which nonprofit did Dr. King express his views on war?

The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR)

The pacifist nonprofit FOR is nearly 100 years old. Its research on violence in Latin America was the subject of a front-page New York Times article last fall.

10. Which nonprofit is devoted to sharing Dr. King's legacy with ordinary people?

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change

The King Center, spearheaded by Mrs. Coretta Scott King until her death in 2006, survives but has been roiled by financial and leadership challenges over the years. The center, Dr. King's birth home and other buildings are part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site, maintained by the National Park Service.

Comments (3)

  • Great list! And, in addition to the lifting of Dr. King's spirits by the SNCC Freedom Singers, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee expanded his consciousness and challenged many of his assumptions through our insistence on a non-hierarchical student led movement. SCLC staffer Ms. Ella Baker assisted southern and northern African American college students in founding SNCC as a separate organization, instead of as the student arm of SCLC which is what King had hoped for. John Lewis, now Congressman Lewis, was one of the earliest leaders who maintained strong organizational ties between the two groups. The creative conflict and coordination between the two organizations culminated in the historic Selma to Montgomery March in March 1965 and to the 1965 voter registration and education projects which were modeled on the SNCC / COFO led Freedom Summer of 1964. Both organizations ran projects throughout the South, in tandem, sometimes with solid coordination, as in the county where I worked as a white 19 year old student from San Francisco State assigned to Wilcox County Alabama. We had joint staff meetings where wrestled through strategic and ideological differences that mirrored meetings taking place at the national level between SCLC and SNCC. Many "Snickers", as we were sometimes called, believe that we students had as great an impact on Dr. King as his adult advisors. For those interested in some first hand accounts of the 1965 Southern Civil Rights Movement, please read and leave comments on my blog http://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com. Thanks for posting this timely article as we celebrate Black History Month. We may have a way to go to build the Beloved Community that SNCC and King envisioned, but it is a goal we must continue to work towards. Indeed those freedom songs strengthened us then and still resonate today - Maria Gitin

    Feb 01, 2011
  • Anonymous

    A very cool list that makes a great point. I know the Highlander Center served as a training and convening place for many activists over the years including Rosa Parks. Does anyone know Dr King's relationship or engagement with Highlander?

    Feb 03, 2011
  • Wonderful list, but it raises a question that I think Terry Odendahl and others posed last year in a conference panel with a theme of "Occupy Philanthropy." Would Rev. King have gotten a grant from today's foundations?

    The foundations that were associated with providing funding for elements of the civil rights movement were, if I recall correctly, Taconic, Field, Norman, among the groups that specifically funded some civil rights era movement organizations (including some support for the SCLC headed by Rev. King) -- as distinct from some foundations during that era and even earlier that supported research and analysis on issues of race in the South, but didn't fund movement organizing and protests. I wonder if Dr. King would have had to prepare a detailed proposal and identify the quantitative outcomes that grants to support his work would be measured against.

    Rick Cohen

    Jan 21, 2013

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