There were several marches in the city of Washington before the March on Washington of 1963.
The first was the 1894 march of Coxey’s Army — a march by unemployed workers at the height of what was then the worst economic depressions in U.S. history.
There was the 1913 Women Suffrage Parade, in which 5,000 women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, drawing crowds that stood on trolleys and pressed in to get a look at lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain, who wore a white cape, rode a white horse, and clad herself in the costume of “Columbia” — the mythical goddess and feminine symbol of the United States. The women marched for the right to vote.
There was “Father Cox’s Army” of 1932, in which Father James Renshaw Cox led 20,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians to march for the creation of a public works program during the Great Depression. It was the largest march up to that point.
Then came the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957. The first effort to organize a national march to lift up the cause of African-American civil rights, the pilgrimage was organized by Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph to urge the enforcement of the three-year old Supreme Court landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education. About 25,000 people — mostly African-American — gathered in Washington, D.C., where they heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., give his first national speech, “Give Us the Ballot.”
It’s remarkable. Even with the scores of marches on Washington since 1963, we all still know what we mean when we say the March on Washington.
In our collective memory, we see black-and-white images of immaculately dressed men and women wearing hats, ties, and dresses, marching in dress shoes. We see a sea of people stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. And we see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., frozen in time, smiling and waving to the crowd of a quarter million people. We see King’s passion, mouth open as he bellows words that sear the conscience of a nation and ignite its imagination. His arm is outstretched over the podium. He is surrounded by men and women who are also there to plead with a nation to “let freedom ring!”
These images are seared into our nation’s memory, even though most of us were not there.
I scanned the images of the 1963 March on Washington recently and one thing struck me that I had not noticed before:
This was an interracial march. The 1963 March on Washington lifted the cries of an entire nation that was beginning to stand in solidarity with the plight of its most oppressed citizens. Masses of white ministers, churchgoers, and workers marched alongside masses of black ministers, churchgoers, and workers. They were joined by citizens of every ethnicity who descended on the National Mall in an unprecedented show of solidarity with “the least.”
The people who lived the March that we begin to celebrate this week were of every hue in the American rainbow. The people who lived that March 50 years ago had a sense of urgency, a dogged determination, a refusal to settle for the status quo that had kept them apart for more than 300 years. That status quo had barred them from drinking from the same fountains and using the same banks, from going to the same schools or sitting together on the bus, from living in the same neighborhoods or from giving each others’ children to be husband and wife to the other. 300 years. No one was free in 1963 — not white people, nor black people, nor anyone else. Segregation dictated the daily steps, and even the dreams, of all Americans.
The demon of racism went underground after the crowning achievements of the Civil Rights era. Overt segregation gave way to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then legislators mounted a grand and determined push to eliminate the poverty caused by centuries of entrenched segregation.
Fifty years later, the demonic force of racism is rearing its head once again. African-Americans and other people of color are experiencing a legislative assault on their civil rights the likes of which our nation has not seen since 1963. There are real things to march about right now: the gutted Voting Rights Act, mass incarceration, sentencing disparities connected to prolific stand your ground laws, workers without jobs, plus the recent attacks on food stamps by some legislators, even in light of growing disparity in American hunger rates.
If there was ever a time in the decades since 1963 that the ones Jesus would deem “the least” needed the whole church body to stand in solidarity, it is now.
Let us take this opportunity to learn from our history. The 1963 March on Washington was not just a snapshot in the annals of black history. It was a major turning point in American history.
Likewise, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was not just a dream for black people. With the words “Let freedom ring,” King gave voice to the cries of white and black hearts alike — and hearts of every hue that longed to be “free at last” from the snares of sin-stained segregation.
Jesus will be standing in the crowd this Saturday as the nation celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He will be present as we celebrate Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on Wednesday. And Jesus will be standing in solidarity with all “the least” in America. He will call them his family, as he did in Matthew 25:40.
And Christ will be moved with compassion, and that compassion will be made manifest through the work of his people to make a more just world.
My prayer is that the whole church would be standing with him.
Lisa Sharon Harper is Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners.