The Council encompassed groups with different strategies and agendas, from the radical Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to the conservative National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). By centralizing donations, the formation of the group muted disagreements over fundraising and membership. It worked to oppose tactics like civil disobedience and boycotts by controlling distribution of funds and by virtue of connections to the media establishment. Conflict nevertheless overcame the group quickly, and its money and power declined gradually until dissolution in January 1967.
With national attention on the Birmingham campaign, King became even more valuable as a high-profile fundraiser. Conflict intensified among movement leaders, particularly between King and NAACP chief Roy Wilkins. Historian David Garrow writes:
To a number of close observers, Wilkins' anger and the growing appearance of interorganizational competition were rooted basically in the heightened financial stakes that had resulted from the Birmingham crisis. That event had elevated King to the indisputable civil rights top spot in the American public's mind. It also meant that King's SCLC, rather than the long-established NAACP, would be the chief financial beneficiary of the new interest in civil rights.
On 19 June 1963, representatives from 96 corporations and foundations met for a fundraising breakfast at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. $800,000 was raised. Donations came from the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, and 93 other businesses and foundations in addition to the Taconic Foundation. Few or none of these were Black-owned.
At the Currier-sponsored breakfast the next morning, the Taconic Foundation's president recommended that the black leadership establish the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership (CUCRL) which, under Currier's auspices, would serve as a clearinghouse for dividing large contributions among all the organizations. Everyone present knew of Currier's great personal wealth, as well as his remarkable ability to generate funds from other well-to-do friends. No one dissented from his plan. The arrangement could lessen the growing internecine conflict before serious damage was done, and it was all but certain to provide each of the organizations with funds they otherwise would not receive.
The Council announced itself on 2 July 1963 after a meeting of the 
The organizations involved were:
- The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other ministers
- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a legal advocacy group led by Roy Wilkins
- The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF)—a group which split from the NAACP in 1957—under Director-General Jack Greenberg
- The Whitney Young
- The National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), led by Dorothy Height
- The John Lewis
- The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), directed by James Farmer and advised by Bayard Rustin
The insistence at first that SNCC be excluded from the council revealed a dislike that was never overcome. But the growing importance of SNCC in the field of human and civil rights made it impossible for those leaders to ignore its existence.Forman's first Council meeting took place at the Carlyle Hotel after the March on Washington.)
Soon after its formation, the Council announced that it would be led by co-chairs Whitney Young and Stephen Currier. Outsiders attended meetings only by invitation, and leaders were not allowed to send delegates.
For public relations, the Council employed producer Victor Weingarten. Also involved from the White fund-raising world were tax lawyer Mel Dewitt and Jane Lee J. Eddy, director of the Taconic Foundation.
The Council formed a tax-exempt account called the Welfare, Education, and Legal Defense (WELD) Fund. The fund was managed by civil rights lawyer Wiley Branton. WELD received additional money ($50,000) from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
In its first disbursement of funds, the Council allocated $125,000 to the NAACP, $125,000 to the Urban League, $100,000 for the NAACP LDF, $100,000 to CORE, $50,000 to the SCLC, $50,000 for the NCNW Educational Foundation, and $15,000 for SNCC.
Conflict within the Council
SNCC, one of the more radical groups, was dissatisfied to receive the smallest amount, but stayed in the coalition. Promising access to large amounts of money allowed the CUCRL to regulate SNCC, CORE, and the SCLC—considered the more radical groups within the Council. Historian Charles W. Eagles writes:
... it is essential to appreciate the admixture of motives that lay behind the mid-1963 creation of CUCRL: first, a firm desire on the part of wealthy white movement supporters such as the Taconic Foundation President Stephen R. Currier to stabilize if not eliminate the increasing visible and hostile competition between civil rights groups for contributors' dollars; second, a wish to moderate the southern movement's increasingly aggressive and demanding tone by giving NAACP chief Wilkins and National Urban League head Whitney Young, a good friend of Currier's a regular and intimate forum for propounding their views to the more direct action-oriented leaders of SNCC, CORE, and SCLC; and, third, an intent to exert some control over SNCC's angriest inclinations by centralizing at least a part of movement fundraising and using the resulting allocation process as a carrot-and-stick inducement for SNCC to follow a "responsible" course.Later accounts from participants also described the Council as competitive and harsh. Forman (of SNCC) wrote that the group felt like
a jungle of civil rights hyenas, each distrustful of the other, each with personal grievances against the other, each agreeing to curb some of his hostility so that he could get just a little more money for programs with which everyone else probably disagreed.
James Farmer of CORE wrote:
The United in CUCRL's name was more a posture than a reality. These were no joint chiefs of staff poring over maps to determine where and when the final assault was to be launched and by which branch of the forces. There was, instead, a jockeying for position to determine who would be first to march victoriously into the nations' heartland, and for whom the flags would be waved and the bugles sounded.
Farmer reports a dialogue between Wilkins and King:
- Wilkins: One of these days, Martin, some bright reporter is going to take a good hard look at Montgomery and discover that despite all the hoopla, your boycott didn't desegregate a single city bus. It was the quiet NAACP-type legal action that did it.
- King: We're fully aware of that, Roy. And we in the SCLC believe that it's going to have to be a partnership between nonviolent direct action and legal action if we're going to get the job done.
- Wilkins: In fact, Martin, if you have desegregated anything by your efforts, kindly enlighten me.
- King: Well, I guess about the only thing I've desegregated so far is a few human hearts.
- Wilkins (nodding): Yes, I'm sure you have done that, and that's important. So keep on doing it; I'm sure it will help the cause in the long run.
March on Washington
The announcement of the new group coincided with endorsements of the Kennedy Civil Rights Act (eventually the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and with public planning for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On 22 June 1963 (three days after the first Carlyle Hotel meeting) Currier, Young, Wilkins, King, Randolph, Farmer met at the White House with President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The meeting proceeded smoothly, and the CUCRL leaders agreed with the Kennedy administration that the main focus of the March would be support for new legislation.
The group stated explicitly that the March on Washington would not involve Washington Monument (at the center of the National Mall) to the Lincoln Memorial. Attendees would only be allowed to hold signs displaying one of five official statements.
Dorothy Height experienced discrimination because of sexism, being constantly excluded and trivialized despite supposedly equal membership in the Council. She wrote that after the organization and execution of the March on Washington, "women became much more aware and much more aggressive in facing up to sexism in our dealings with the male leadership in the movement."
Malcolm X claimed in his November 1963 "Message to the Grass Roots" speech that the White power structure created the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership specifically for the purpose of infiltrating and coopting a revolutionary march on Washington. His account parallels those assembled later by historians, beginning with discord among moderate civil rights leaders: "As these Negroes of national stature began to attack each other, they began to lose their control of the Negro masses."
Negroes was out there in the streets. They was talking about we was going to march on Washington. By the way, right at that time Birmingham had exploded, and the Negroes in Birmingham—remember, they also exploded. They began to stab the crackers in the back and bust them up 'side their head—yes, they did. That's when Kennedy sent in the troops, down in Birmingham. [...] the Negroes started talking—about what? We're going to march on Washington, march on the Senate, march on the White House, march on the Congress, and tie it up, bring it to a halt; don't let the government proceed. They even said they was [sic] going out to the airport and lay down on the runway and don't let no airplanes land. I'm telling you what they said. That was revolution. That was revolution. That was the black revolution. It was the grass roots out there in the street. Scared the white man to death, scared the White power structure in Washington, D. C. to death; I was there.
He goes on to describe the meeting in the Carlyle Hotel:
A philanthropic society headed by a white man named Stephen Currier called all the top civil-rights leaders together at the Carlyle Hotel. And he told them that, "By you all fighting each other, you are destroying the civil-rights movement. And since you're fighting over money from white liberals, let us set up what is known as the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. Let's form this council, and all the civil-rights organizations will belong to it, and we'll use it for fund-raising purposes." Let me show you how tricky the white man is. And as soon as they got it formed, they elected Whitney Young as the chairman, and who [do] you think became the co-chairman? Stephen Currier, the white man, a millionaire.
Once these leaders agreed to the CUCRL bargain, they gained access to the resources of the white power structure:
Soon as they got the setup organized, the white man made available to them top public relations experts; opened the news media across the country at their disposal; and then they begin to project these Big Six as the leaders of the march. Originally, they weren't even in the march.
As a result, the March did not threaten systemic racism:
They controlled it so tight—they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn't make; and then told them to get out town by sundown. And everyone of those Toms was out of town by sundown.
King announced in October 1963 that he was assigning all rights to the recording of his "I Have a Dream" speech to the Council.
The Council subsequently released an official recording of speeches at the March, titled "We Shall Overcome". It includes speeches from King, Wilkins, Young, Rustin, Lewis, Randolph, Walter Reuther, and Joachim Prinz, as well as music from Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Marian Anderson, and Peter, Paul & Mary. This record sold for $3.00 by mail or $3.98 retail.
Legal action was taken to halt sales of other recordings. Clarence Jones argued that Mr. Maestro Inc and Twentieth Century Fox had infringed on the group's copyright. The defendants argued that King was a public figure and his words were in the public domain.
King and the SCLC initially announced support for the boycott. But soon afterwards, the CUCRL announced its opposition. The New York Times reported that King "had had second thoughts on the proposal and had decided to go along with the thinking of the other civil rights leaders on the matter".
Roy Wilkins said both that the boycott would be impossible to organize nationally and that it would be harmful to the interests of the civil rights movement. Wilkins argued instead for selective buying campaigns, and for Christmas donations to the CUCRL. The Council created a "Holiday Gift Fund", through which people could donate to the CUCRL in another person's name.
Civil Rights legislation
Currier resigned his position in September 1964.
Farmer (CORE) reports that the group was generally reluctant to support unconventional actions. The Council opposed affirmative action laws even after Farmer discussed them with President Johnson, and dissuaded Farmer from appearing with Malcolm X in a televised debate. ("I think all of us should agree here in CUCRL that none of the top leaders will appear on a platform, radio, or TV with Malcolm X because we just give him an audience", said Young.)
Forman (SNCC) writes that anti-communism created recurring problems for the group. He describes one eipisde in which Currier met with him alone and asked him to stop SNCC from using the National Lawyers Guild. He says that Young and others constantly pressured the group to pass anti-communist ("red-baiting") resolutions, opposed only by himself and King.
After the Civil Rights Act, the group lost momentum and power. Meetings became less frequent and money stopped coming in. (Forman writes: "By 1965 the Council on United Civil Rights Leadership was raising less and less money while trying to inflict more and more of its conservative positions on the movement.") Division over U.S. warfare in Southeast Asia increased tension to the breaking point. "Johnson needs a consensus. If we are not with him on Vietnam then he is not going to be with us on civil rights", said Young. Leaders of SNCC and CORE (as well as King, though perhaps not the rest of the SCLC) disagreed strenuously.
In February 1966, the Council had only $67,000, which it distributed among members.
Stephen Currier and his wife Audrey Bruce Currier also disappeared in January 1967 when their private airplane vanished into the Bermuda Triangle. Currier had recently donated $43,500 to the dying CUCRL. Two-thirds of the Currier fortune was left to the Taconic Foundation.
- "Council for United Civil Rights Leadership: Where Are Negro Donors In $1,500,000 Campaign?", New Pittsburgh Courier, 27 July 1963, p. 3.
- Sitkoff, King (2008), p. 111. "After Birmingham, there was so much more to compete for, and more reasons to win at any cost. The pool of prospective members, of bodies to be utilized in demonstrations, and of committed activists willing to do whatever was required bloomed like a thousand flowers. [...] Birmingham swung open the door to huge financial contributions, alliances with labor and corporate leaders, and public endorsements and assistance from the nation's civic groups. Accordingly, each of the major black protest organizations tried to outdo the others and respond to the surges from the local struggles."
- Garrow, Bearing the Cross (1986), pp. 269–270.
- "Joint Negro Council Allocates $565,000 to Rights Groups", New York Times, 18 July 1963; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- Garrow, Bearing the Cross (1986), p. 270.
- Peter Kihss, "7 Negro Groups Unite on Civil Rights Activities: Will Seek Joint 1.5 Million Fund for Desegregation Drives Across U.S.", New York Times, 3 July 1963, p. 10; accessed via ProQuest 22 May 2013.
- Dickerson, Militant Mediator (2004), p. 177–178.
- Forman, Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972), pp. 365–366, 370.
- Peter Kihss, "Race Sit-In Begins at Mayor's Office in a Job Protest", New York Times 10 July 1963; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 1963.
- Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart (1985), p. 215. "At the first meeting of the elite sextet, we decided to call ourselves the Council on United Civil Rights Leadership (CUCRL); to meet regularly, monthly if possible; to limit participation to the heads of those six civil rights organizations; and to have a rotating chairmanship. Others could attend only by invitation. The sending of surrogates was not to be permitted; the leaders had to attend for themselves."
- Dave Hepburn, "In The Wings", New York Amsterdam News, 4 April 1964, p. 14; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- Forman, Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972), p. 365.
- "Rights Groups Join in a Common Fund", New York Times, 17 July 1963; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- "Branton To Coordinate Rights Committee Work", Atlanta Daily World, 21 August 1963, p. 1; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 1963.
- Eagles, The Civil Rights Movement in America (2012), pp. 63–64.
- Forman, Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972), p. 366.
- Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart (1985), p. 215.
- Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart (1985), p. 216.
- "Aug. 28 Date For March on Washington", Los Angeles Sentinel, 11 July 1963; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 1963.
- VanSertima, Great Black Leaders (1988), p. 44. "Three days later, Currier, along with King, Randolph, Wilkins, Young, and James Farmer of CORE, attended the crucial White House meeting at which the general objectives of the March on Washington were agreed upon. King now argued that, rather than being ill-timed and counterproductive, the march was the best means of 'dramatizing the issues and mobilizing support in parts of the country which don't know the problem at first hand.' Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Kennedy concurred."
- "JFK, A. PHILIP RANDOLPH AND THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON", 9-12 lessons, White House Historical Association.
- Relman Morin, "Violence Haunts Racial Struggle", The Hartford Courant, 11 August 1963, p. 7A; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- Sitkoff, King (2008), p. 120.
- Garrow, Bearing the Cross (1986), p. 276.
- "Dorothy I. Height", American Radio Works.
- Malcolm X, "Message to the Grass Roots", speech given 10 November 1963 at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan.
- Hall, Gladys Walton. "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom", in Advocacy in America, ed. Gladys Walton Hall, Grace C. Clark, & Michael A. Creedon; University Press of America, 1987; p. 126.
- "King Assigns 'Dream' Disc", New Pittsburgh Courier, 2 November 1963, p. 21; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- "Rights Council Has Record", New York Amsterdam News, 19 October 1963, p. 9; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- Thomas Lask, "A Memento—and a Lesson", New York Times, 3 November 1963, p. X20; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- "Reserves Decision On King Vs. Record Companies", New York Amsterdam News, 19 October 1963, p. 25; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- "Christmas Boycott On Deathbed Santa Claus Might Ride Again!", Chicago Daily Defender, 7 October 1963, p. 4; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 1963.
- Theodore Jones, "Negro Rights Leaders Decline To Sponsor Christmas Boycott", New York Times, 5 October 1963, p. 10; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- Garrow, Bearing the Cross (1986), p. 299. "... Wilkins and other moderate figures worked behind the scenes to ensure that SNCC and SCLC's national boycott idea would be rebuffed at the next meeting of CUCRL in New York on October 4. King backed away from the idea in the interests of unity once Wilkins, Whitney Young, and others had expressed their opposition."
- "Seven Major Civil Rights Groups Condemn Christmas Boycott", New Pittsburgh Courier, 12 October 1963, p. 3; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- Jackie Robinson, "For Happier Holidays", New York Amsterdam News, 21 December 1963, p. 13; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- "'Big 7' of Civil Rights Have Unique Xmas Plan", New Pittsburgh Courier, 23 November 1963, p. 2; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- "ACP Says Boycott Not Off", New York Amsterdam News, 19 October 1963, p. 14; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- "Leaders Vow To Back LBJ in Rights Fight", Chicago Daily Defender, 27 November 1963, p. 4; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 2013.
- Richard L. Lyons, "Rights Foes Ask Compliance: Ellender Leads Drive To Bar Defiance", Boston Globe, 5 July 1964, p. 1; accessed via ProQuest, 22 May 1963.
- "Millionaire Quits Leadership Council", New York Amsterdam News, 19 September 1964; accessed via ProQuest, 23 May 2013.
- Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart (1985), p. 222.
- Forman, Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972), p. 367.
- Forman, Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972), p. 368. "Fear of helping Goldwater get elected was Wilkins' professed motive again when he proposed a moratorium on demonstrations at a council meeting during the summer of 1964. With the aid of the Johnson administration, he had dreamed up the scheme of trying to get all civil rights organizations to call such a moratorium. Demonstrations might propel Goldwater into the White House, he said again and again."
- Eagles, The Civil Rights Movement in America (2012), p. 45. "After a time, it became difficult to hold CUCRL together. Despite repeated affirmations of the value of regular contact among the leaders, scheduled meetings became less frequent and attendance dwindled. After the fundraising drive of 1963, there were only modest sums to distribute; by mid-decade, the money had virtually run out."
- Forman, Making of Black Revolutionaries (1972), p. 369.
- Dickerson, Militant Mediator (2004), p. 182.
- Dickerson, Militant Mediator (2004), p. 182. "Jack Greenberg suggested to Whitney Young that CUCRL dissolve. With Young's assent, the General Counsel of the National Urban League inaugurated procedures for ending CUCRL's existence. The council died in 1967."
- Eagles, The Civil Rights Movement in America (2012), p. 45.
- Kilpatrick, There When We Needed Him (2007), p. 103.
- Jack Erickson, "Blood and Money : Murder in the Hunt Country", Washingtonian Monthly, December 1983.
- Lloyd Grove, "Child of Fortune, Take 2", Washington Post, 8 July 1998.
- Dickerson, Militant Mediator (2004), p. 234.
- "Court Asked to Declare Couple Dead", Park City Daily News, 29 January 1967.
- Dickerson, Dennis C. Militant Mediator: Whitney M. Young, Jr. University Press of Kentucky, 2004. ISBN 9780813171067
- Eagles, Charles W. The Civil Rights Movement in America'. University Press of Mississippi, 2012. ISBN 9781604738124
- Farmer, James. Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement. TCU Press, 1985. ISBN 9780875651880
- Forman, James. The Making of Black Revolutionaries. University of Washington Press, 1972/1997. ISBN 9780295976594
- Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. William Morrow and Company, 1986. ISBN 0-688-04794-7
- Kilpatrick, Judith. There When We Needed Him: Wiley Austin Branton, Civil Rights Warrior. University of Arkansas Press, 2007. ISBN 9781610754224
- Sitkoff, Harvard. King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. ISBN 9780809063499
- VanSertima, Ivan. Great black leaders: ancient and modern. Journal of African Civilizations, 1988. ISBN 9780887387395