March on Washington

Celebrations of ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech Obscure Its Critique

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rev. Fred Shuttleworth; Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Phot
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rev. Fred Shuttleworth; Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Photo courtesy RNS.

It may be the most famous speech of the 20th century.

Millions of American schoolchildren who never experienced Jim Crow or whites-only water fountains know the phrase “I have a dream.”

And many American adults can recite from memory certain phrases: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of the prophet Amos’ vision of justice rolling down “like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” or the line about children being judged not by “the color of their skin but the content of their character.”

To many in this country, “I have a dream” has a place of honor next to the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. It celebrates the lofty ideals of freedom.

But scholars say it would be a mistake to celebrate the speech without also acknowledging its profound critique of American values.

 

Memories of the March

Rep. John Lewis. Photo courtesy RNS/the Office of Rep. John Lewis.
Rep. John Lewis. Photo courtesy RNS/the Office of Rep. John Lewis.

Don Cash had graduated from high school in June 1963 and decided on the spur of the moment to join the March on Washington when he finished his work shift at a nearby warehouse. The Baptist layman is the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union’s Minority Coalition and a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP. 

“I think we got a long ways to go but I do think that there’s been a lot of changes. I don’t think you’ll ever see what Martin Luther King dreamed in reality, in total. I think we’ll always have to strive for perfection. The dream that he had is a perfect world and I think that in order to be perfect, you have to continue to work at it.”

On Scripture: Whose Banquet Is It Anyway?

The upcoming March on Washington has been on my mind as I reflect upon this week’s Gospel reading from Luke about a banquet. I personally love banquets. You get to adorn yourself with the finest trappings, dance the night away, and if the food is good, that is an added plus! But what I find most frustrating? Knowing a banquet is occurring, and I have not been invited. “Did I do something wrong? Do I not meet a certain standard? Who did get invited?” My wondering is filled with emotion.

What if America was a banquet, and at this banquet the servings were fair wages, just trials, civil rights and liberties, but offered by invitation only? According to those who “March(ed) on Washington,” this was exactly the case. Blacks deserved the same fair treatment as whites, and they were protesting to bring about the necessary changes. Perhaps if everyone took heed of Jesus’ instructions on banquet etiquette, things would be different and better. 

Why I Will Be Marching on Washington and Why You Should Too

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
March on Washington, 1963, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I will march on Saturday because I refuse to allow my two sons to be treated as statistics or a stereotypes rather than as children of God. I will march because overly aggressive policing tactics that overly rely upon racial profiling make a mockery of Dr. King’s dream that every child will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.   

I will march because the recent repeal of section four of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court jeopardizes the voting rights of millions of Americans across the country, particularly in southern states where new barriers to this sacred right are already being erected. 

I will march because based on national statistics, my two black boys face a one in three chance of spending some time of their lives behind bars, a disturbing and destructive reality that has been made possible in part by mandatory drug sentencing laws that must be reevaluated and changed.  

50 Years Later: The Call to Let Freedom Ring!

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By U.S. Information Agency, Press and Publications Service. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

'The Butler:' Owning Our Collective Story

As people stepped on our toes and stood anxiously in front of us, waiting to exit the crowded theater, three of us sat weeping at the close of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Even now, as I recall that moment, it brings tears to my eyes.

How do I describe the movie? Utterly intense. Remarkable. Heartbreaking. Inspiring. A genius capturing of the complexities of the Civil Rights Movement, of the history of race in America in the 20th and early 21st centuries, of presidential decision making, and of family.

I sat next to my colleague, Lisa Sharon Harper, who sobbed at the violence, tragedy, and passionate courage displayed on screen. It was a challenge. To be a white woman sitting next to an African-American woman as she wept over the suffering of her people — often at the hands of my people. It was neither her nor I who had perpetrated these specific acts, but we are certainly still caught in the tangled web of systemic racism and the histories that our ancestors have wrought us.

Even as we had waited in the theater prior to the movie's start, we spoke of serious subjects. She shared some of her lineage and the challenges of legal records that simply do not exist when ancestors are slaves or perhaps a Cherokee Indian who escaped the Trail of Tears in Kentucky and suddenly appears on the U.S. Census in 1850 as an adult. We spoke of her leadership in the church, and I encouraged her to continue speaking even though she is one of the lone women who graces the stages in front of national audiences. I told her, "You must do this so that other women who come after you can do this. You must do this for women right now. You must do this so that I can do this." We bonded over being women in ministry.

And then the separation came. I do not know Lisa's shoes — the road that she walks due to the color of her skin. I see her in all of her glory — passion, intelligence, creativity — and not in all of her blackness. Our world sees her with racial eyes.

Race Wars and Mustard Seeds

Hand holdng a mustard seed, ptnphoto / Shutterstock.com
Hand holdng a mustard seed, ptnphoto / Shutterstock.com

This year marks the 150th anniversary of both the issuing of Emancipation Proclamation and the battle of Gettysburg. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. All three moments marked major turning points in the fundamental American struggle to actualize the divine dream of life, liberty, and equality for all. That dream has been especially powerful through the struggle for African-American freedom.

From a biblical perspective, American slavery and Jim Crow segregation not only subjugated the body. For about 300 years, from Virginia’s first race-based slave laws in the 1660s to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the legal binding of black hands, feet, and mouths also bound spirits and souls. Both slavery and Jim Crow laws denied the dignity of human beings made in the image of God and forbade them from obeying God’s command to exercise Genesis 1:28 “dominion” — in today’s terms, human agency.

So, the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were cause for jubilee worship in black churches and among other abolitionists. Likewise when the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, churches across the nation erupted again in worshipful jubilee.

Now, nearly 50 years after the second American jubilee, African Americans are being stripped of dignity and constitutionally protected freedoms like we have not seen since Jim Crow.

New & Noteworthy

The Dream at 50
This August marks the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for civil rights for African Americans. PBS will feature special broadcast and Web programming, including the premiere of the new documentary The March onTuesday, Aug. 27 (check local listings). pbs.org/black-culture/explore

The Miracle of Meaning
Secular Days, Sacred Moments: The America Columns of Robert Coles, edited by David D. Cooper, collects 31 short essays by the respected child psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Whatever the topic, Coles offers thoughtful insights on civic life and moral purpose. Michigan State University Press

Soul Searching
The album One True Vine, gospel-R&B legend Mavis Staples’ second collaboration with Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy, is an exploration of doubt and faith. Staples moves with understated, gravelly grace from gospel standards to covers of songs by Low and Funkadelic to originals by Tweedy. Anti- Records

Jerusalem, Jerusalem
Dale Hanson Bourke gives a helpful introduction for American Christians to an intensely controversial topic in The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers. This latest edition of the Skeptic’s Guide series covers key places, terms, and history, with helpful graphics, all in a compact, readable format. IVP

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Sojo Stories: Marching Alongside a Civil Rights Hero

Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners
Nate Powell (l), Congressman John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

It may have taken a little bit of prodding — a little ‘you-want-me-to-do-what?’ and a lot of faith — but in the end, Congressman John Lewis agreed to go along with staffer Andrew Aydin’s out-of-the-box idea. The result: March (Book 1) — the first of a three-part graphic novel autobiography chronicling Lewis’ life and the Civil Rights Movement.

“The story of the movement that we tell is very much John Lewis’ story in this first book,” Aydin said. “It is a story of him growing up poor, on a farm, and it builds to a climax of the national sit-in movement.”

Lewis certainly has a lot to tell. He and other activists famously were beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965 during an attempted march for voting rights — an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” He served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the height of the movement, spoke at the historic March on Washington alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Aydin, who co-wrote the book with Congressman Lewis, and illustrator Nate Powell sat down with Sojourners to explain how the series came about and why it is such an important story these 50 years later.

VIDEO: The Story of the Common Good

Jim Wallis at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners
Jim Wallis at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

I recently went back to the Lincoln Memorial to tell the story of how and why I wrote my new book, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good. And I reflected on my favorite Lincoln quote, displayed on the book’s cover:

“My concern is not whether God is on our side: my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

I invite you to watch this short video, and to engage in the discussion as we move forward toward our common good. Blessings.

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