This Valentine’s Day marks the 60th anniversary of a series of meetings that changed our nation’s history — and many New Orleanians don’t realize that it happened in this city’s very own Central City neighborhood. In February 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group of Baptist pastors and activists led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was formally incorporated inside the New Zion Baptist Church at the corner of Third and LaSalle streets.
The organization would coordinate nonviolent action to desegregate bus systems across the South, and later would take on bigger issues of segregation nationwide. The creation of the SCLC propelled the Civil Rights movement forward in unprecedented ways.
A small plaque describing the work that Dr. King and the other SCLC members undertook inside the church sits on the exterior of New Zion Baptist Church. However, a group of people dedicated to the site’s history are working on a bigger way to recognize and celebrate the civil rights achievements that occurred at the church and also at A.L. Davis, Jr. Park, located one block away, which also held meetings and demonstrations. (That site was known in 1957 as Shakespeare Park and was later renamed for New Zion’s-then pastor A.L. Davis, Jr., who was influential with Dr. King in organizing the SCLC.)
Local nonprofit Felicity Redevelopment, Inc., in partnership with the Tulane Regional Urban Design Center and community leaders from Central City, are currently solidifying plans for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Pavilion Project, an interpretive site that will be constructed on two vacant lots across the street from New Zion Baptist Church that are owned by Felicity Redevelopment. Tulane Regional Urban Design Center students and faculty are designing the site, and its look is still evolving. “It will be part memorial, part educational site,” explained Ella Camburnbeck, director of Felicity Redevelopment. When complete, it will offer interpretive displays to tell the story of the SCLC’s founding and other New Orleans-based civil rights milestones, and have inviting landscaping, seating, shade, a pavilion, and other features to make the site accessible for visitors of all ages and walks of life.
The project team has sought input from neighborhood residents throughout the interpretive site’s development. They are also interviewing locals who participated in the 1957 civil rights actions.
“We’re excited to be celebrating this one moment in time that had a lasting impact on our nation,” Camburnbeck said.
The project has received initial funding from the Azby Foundation and the Harrah’s City Council grant, but more money is still needed to make the SCLC Pavilion a reality. Felicity Redevelopment will hold a fundraiser at the Garden District home of Christel and Keene Kelley on Sunday, Feb. 12 from 4 to 6 p.m. For more information and to buy tickets, visit felicityredevelopment.org.