The Common Good

Why August 28 Matters (It's Not About Glenn Beck)

On August 28, 1963 the mastermind of the historic March on Washington, A. Philip Randolph, said to those gathered, "Let the nations and the world know the meaning of our numbers." He referred to "the largest demonstration in the history of this nation ... the advance guard of a massive moral revolution for jobs and freedom" (quoted in John Lewis' Walking with the Wind, 222-223). Randolph had planned for this day for 22 years, and his vision paved the way to a new phase of the movement for civil rights.

Beloved friends, August 28 is not about Glenn Beck. So many progressives have pointed their ire toward him -- but we should point the finger of condemnation at ourselves, rather than at him. Particularly, we who are pastors. When did we let "God's truth marching on" become a trickle of justice rather than a "flowing mighty stream"?

August 28 is the 47th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" (as I addressed in my previous post). It is also the 55th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, who was murdered on August 28, 1955, when he was 14 years old. His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted that his casket remain open to reveal his mangled and tortured body, saying, "I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby." Medgar Evers was the state field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi, and had helped in the search for Emmett. It was young Emmett's death that helped galvanize a fledgling civil rights movement.

August 28 is not about Glenn Beck or the Tea Party or Republicans or Democrats or Muslims or Catholics or Jews or atheists or evangelicals. It is about all of us, and who we will be as a nation. Those who marched that day 47 years ago simply wanted the right to a fair wage and civic and economic freedom. As Dr. King said on that day, "It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality." But in this nation where animosity is more often the order than unity, many of us who are white or who have privilege do not use our voices to join together with those who continue to insist on "jobs and freedom."

I'm wondering how long it takes for those of us who are not black, who are not poor, who have something in a pension fund, to open our mouths for those who do not. From the Birmingham jail, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: "I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the ... Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice ... ."

Our nation is becoming a two-tiered society. Economist Paul Krugman wrote in "Defining Prosperity Down":

Yes, growth is slowing, and the odds are that unemployment will rise, not fall, in the months ahead. That's bad. But what's worse is the growing evidence that our governing elite just doesn't care -- that a once-unthinkable level of economic distress is in the process of becoming the new normal ... . But now it has happened, and what do we see? First, we see Congress sitting on its hands, with Republicans and conservative Democrats refusing to spend anything to create jobs, and unwilling even to mitigate the suffering of the jobless ...

What lies down this path? Here's what I consider all too likely: Two years from now unemployment will still be extremely high, quite possibly higher than it is now. But instead of taking responsibility for fixing the situation, politicians and Fed officials alike will declare that high unemployment is structural, beyond their control. And as I said, over time these excuses may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the long-term unemployed lose their skills and their connections with the work force, and become unemployable.

I'd like to imagine that public outrage will prevent this outcome. But while Americans are indeed angry, their anger is unfocused. And so I worry that our governing elite, which just isn't all that into the unemployed, will allow the jobs slump to go on and on and on.

I wonder how much has changed in the 47 years since the March on Washington. August 28, 1963, was not just Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech (which many corporations have misused to their advantage during Black History Month). It was the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." At what point will we join together to say, "This is not acceptable," and join with Dr. King in insisting (as he did on that day) that America has issued a promissory note to "citizens of color" that continues to come back marked "insufficient funds"?

As King welcomed white folks that day 47 years ago, he referred to those "who have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone." And yet, on this August 28, it is African-American leaders and churches who raise their voices in dissent, and so many of the rest of us still do not understand that unless all of us are free, none of us are free.

I doubt that message will be heard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial this year -- but the truth is, that message will not be heard from many of our pulpits or our kitchen tables. Forty-seven years later, what happened to the Dream?

Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry is a pastor in Michigan.

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