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March on Washington showcased religious roots of Civil Rights movement

SHARE March on Washington showcased religious roots of Civil Rights movement

Crowds are shown in front of the Washington Monument during the March on Washington for civil rights, August 28, 1963.


Editor’s note: This story was originally published Aug. 24, 2013.

A Catholic archbishop, a Jewish rabbi and a Baptist minister offered prayers. The internationally acclaimed "Queen of Gospel" Mahalia Jackson performed. And among the nine speakers were four religious leaders who exhorted the crowd to recognize their sins, repent and join the cause that would make them and their brothers and sisters free.

It may sound like a religious tent revival meeting, but it was in fact the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place 60 years ago this week. Originally the idea of a Black labor organizer, this seminal event of the Civil Rights movement was infused with faith, revealing then and now that religion was a primary source of strength behind the movement, scholars say.

"The Civil Rights movement emerged from churches and was guided by church leaders ... so it was natural that these people then became important leaders in the movement," said Richard Lischer, a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School. "Secondly, everyone recognized that these clergy did have the power of language and could move people with the word."

And it was the preaching of Christian and Jewish leaders that took place Aug. 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to an interracial mass of about 250,000 and millions more on television that became the most enduring memory of the historic gathering — particularly the famous "I Have a Dream" speech given by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a clergyman who became the most powerful figure of the Civil Rights era.

"What a lot of secular liberals have never understood about King is that religion wasn’t just an opportunistic accessory. It was his driving force and utter motivation," said Jonathan Rieder, a sociologist who has written about the religious roots of King and the Civil Rights movement. "It was the source of their vision of justice."

Faith that God was on their side gave those in the Black Christian churches the will to withstand the abuse that came in response to their non-violent protest tactics, historians say. Faith also spurred white Christians and Jews into action in the months after the March on Washington as they responded to their religious leaders pointing out that segregation and racism didn't square with their own beliefs.

Awakening the churches

The massive march on Washington, D.C., came after a tumultuous nine months of violence and progress in the Civil Rights movement. Black church leaders, their congregations and other activists had taken a stand in Alabama, landing King in jail and sparking a violent backlash by police against people using the movement's peaceful demonstration and civil disobedience tactics.

At the same time, King and the civil rights organization over which he presided, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were reaching out to other faith groups in an effort to enlist them in the cause. In January, a gathering of religious leaders, including King, on the topic of racism and segregation was held in Chicago, and Jewish and Christian leaders agreed their congregations couldn't stand silently on the sidelines while Black people were cruelly discriminated against, often by practices within the white churches.

"King once made the observation that the most segregated hour in America was on Sunday when people attended church," said Aldon Morris, a sociologist at Northwestern University, who wrote "Origins of the Civil Rights Movement." "He felt the church hadn’t stood up enough and supported the movement."

Several months after that meeting, King wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he condemned fellow Southern clergymen who criticized him as an outsider and extremist. But he also justified to a larger audience the purpose and tactics of taking immediate action in nonviolent protest.

Rieder, who examined the letter's origins and significance in the book "Gospel of Freedom," said the epistle, partly written from a dimly lit jail cell, played a key role in awakening a broader white audience both within and without the church to how segregation contradicted Christian, Jewish and overall American values of equality and justice.

Rieder explained that the religious leaders and activists who sat on the rostrum at the Lincoln Memorial represented a "confluence of a major part of the Black movement with the larger ferment in American Christianity and Judaism" collectively standing up against a status quo of racism that they argued had no theological or constitutional justification.

Morris said there was also a practical purpose to broadening the movement's base of support beyond the Black church. Organizers said the event would attract 100,000 to the nation's capital, which would require the participation and resources of others, and King saw religious groups as potential allies.

"They were needing allies from many different groups, and with the movement rooted in moral and religious precepts it made a great deal of sense to reach out to various religious groups," Morris said.

The speeches

The other religious leaders participating in the March on Washington program were as aware as King of the influence faith would have in stamping out racism on a national and local level.

"If all members and all ministers … were indeed ready to stand and march with you for jobs and freedom for the Negro people, together with all the Roman Catholic Church and all the synagogues of America, the battle for full civil rights and dignity would be already won," Eugene Carson Blake, clerk for the United Presbyterian Church USA and vice chairman of race relations for the National Council of Churches of Christ in America, told the throngs that reached to the Washington Monument.

Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference of Interracial Relations, asked listeners to search their souls to determine how much longer they could tolerate discrimination and injustice.

"Who can call himself a man, and take part in a system of segregation which frightens the white man into denying what he knows to be right, into denying the law of his God?" he asked.

Expressing empathy for Black Americans and their history of oppression, Rabbi Joachim Prinz recalled the Jewish people's suffering as slaves in Egypt and their persecution during the Nazi regime in Germany while citizens there looked on in silence.

"America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent," Prinz said. "It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the Black community, but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself."

All the speakers, both religious and secular, conveyed the consistent message that segregation and discrimination were everyone's problem, not just the oppressed. But it was King's address that remains the most powerful and inspirational, articulating the sins of past and present America and describing what the future could hold if the nation would rid itself of racism.

Lischer, who wrote about King's life as a preacher and reformer in the book "Preacher King," said the Baptist pastor's speech drew from past sermons he had given and was refined to appeal to a larger audience beyond a congregation of sympathetic Black believers.

Among the borrowed elements is the famous "I have a dream ..." segment, which Lischer said dated back to King's sermons in the late 1950s and was used shortly before at a gathering in Detroit. That lends some credence to the story that King launched into that part of his speech — which was not part of his prepared text — at the prompting of gospel singer Jackson, who called out from her seat on the rostrum, "Tell them about the dream, Martin."

Before that moment, King had been reading from a manuscript detailing how the nation had not lived up to its promise that all people are free and guaranteed certain rights. But at a point in the original text marked by an asterisk, King looked out on the audience and expounded on a future filled with opportunity and without discrimination or bigotry.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," King said.

Lischer describes how instinct took over as King looked up at the clouds as he spoke, giving a familiar signal to Black worshippers that he was prophesying and looking into the future. King described his southern homeland transformed "into an oasis of freedom and justice," and then borrowed from Old Testament prophets and patriotic songs before closing with the lyrics of a Black spiritual, "Free at last, Free at last, great God almighty, we are free at last."

"It's poetry, which is heightened speech, and heightened speech is filled with metaphor and reaches down deeper into the human heart than prosaic speech," Lischer said. "It's not enough on an occasion like that to just state the truth. You have to sing the truth to reach people."

Religious roots

King, the son and grandson of Baptist pastors, was a master of the prophetic style of preaching common in Black Christian churches, Lischer said. But King stepped out of the mold by taking that preaching tradition outside the walls of the church.

"He joined the tradition of prophetic preaching with certain forms of progressive political thinking, creating a brand new audience for the Black sermon who had never experienced anything like that before," Lischer said. "He enlarged the congregation to create a national congregation."

The goal of the March on Washington to enlist a broad coalition of religious groups to push forward the civil rights agenda worked.

Presbyterian ministers and laity traveled to Mississippi to register voters. Mennonites and Quakers formed missions to help rebuild Black Christian churches that had been burned or destroyed by segregationists. And the white activists who took part in protests and voter registration drives in the South were "ridiculously disproportionately Jewish," Rieder said.

"King's advisers in the North also understood the importance of Jewish financial support to the Civil Rights movement," he added.

The Civil Rights Act, which had lingered in Congress the year of the March on Washington, was signed into law the following year. The Voting Rights Act came in 1965.

During the past decade, scholars and historians have reexamined the Civil Rights movement, with some making the case that without religion and the belief that God was on their side, the movement's organizers and footsoldiers wouldn't have endured the violent backlash to boycotts, marches, civil disobedience to segregation laws and other direct action.

"It was natural for Blacks to turn to the church in the Civil Rights movement as it was always this solid rock amid oppression," Morris said. "You could summon up a great deal of courage through religion. It could empower people to confront all kinds of obstacles, including violence."

And religion proved to be an effective tool to enlist others outside of the Black church to join in the cause. Morris said that was mainly done by reminding Christians and Jews that they couldn't call themselves true believers if they stood by and allowed racism and oppression to go on around them.

"All religions stand on moral grounds. Theologically speaking there was not much difference between the Black and white churches," Morris said. "The Civil Rights movement challenged the white church to live up to all of the principles that they embraced."