Segregation

'Because They Marched:' Obama's Remarks on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of President Barack Obama's speech from the Lincoln Memorial on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

We rightly and best remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory that day, how he gave mighty voice to the quiet hopes of millions; how he offered a salvation path for oppressed and oppressors alike.  His words belong to the ages, possessing a power and prophecy unmatched in our time.

But we would do well to recall that day itself also belonged to those ordinary people whose names never appeared in the history books, never got on TV.  Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters.  They lived in towns where they couldn’t vote and cities where their votes didn’t matter.  They were couples in love who couldn’t marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home.  They had seen loved ones beaten, and children fire-hosed, and they had every reason to lash out in anger, or resign themselves to a bitter fate.

50 Years Later, Recalling the Young ‘Foot Soldiers’ of the Civil Rights Struggle

Photo courtesy Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Child marchers, sprayed with fire hoses in May 1963. Photo courtesy Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In May 1963, thousands of Birmingham school children faced police dogs, fire hoses, and possible arrest to demonstrate against segregation. Now, 50 years later, those who were part of what became known as the “Children’s March” say they don’t want their story to be forgotten.

“We were doing this not just for ourselves but for some higher purpose,” said one of the young marchers, Freeman Hrabowski III. “It focused on civil rights for all Americans.”

Hrabowski is now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He was 12 when he marched in Birmingham and was arrested for parading without a permit. He and hundreds of other children were held in custody for five days before being released.

Experts say the children’s crusade helped galvanize the civil rights struggle at a time when efforts were flagging.

“That was really the tipping point in a tipping year,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch, who has written a series of books about the civil rights movement, told the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”

Watch Birmingham and the Children’s March on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Radical Theology: The New 'White' Religion?

TIME cover, The Latino Reformation
TIME cover, The Latino Reformation

I’ve experienced some strange extremes lately. First, I attended – and spoke at – the Subverting the Norm conference in Springfield, Mo., where we took some time to consider how, if at all, so-called “radical theology” could exist within today’s religious systems. Then I got home and found my latest TIME Magazine, with a cover story titled “The Latino Reformation,” which reveals what most within Protestantism have known for some time: formerly Catholic Latino Christians are dramatically reshaping the face of the American Christian landscape.

Interestingly, there is little-to-no overlap between these two groups – a point which was made clear to me by the fact that there were very few people of color in attendance at Subverting the Norm. One comment, from an African-American woman who was there, was that the very focus of the conference (on academic, esoteric questions of theology and philosophy) assumed the kind of privilege still dominated by middle-class white males. Put another way: while we’re busy navel-gazing and discussing the meaning of Nietzsche’s “death of God,” non-Anglo religious leaders were busy dealing with real-world problems right in front of them.

To Redeem the Soul of America

AT TIMES IT SEEMS VERY HARD to realize that half a century has passed since my late wife, Rosemarie, and I were in Birmingham, Ala., living out a part of our years of service as representatives of the Mennonite churches of America to the Southern freedom movement—that historic black-led struggle for the expansion of democracy in America (inadequately labeled "the civil rights movement").

It was in the midst of those powerful days, in the late winter and early springtime of 1963, when our extraordinary people's movement was spreading to dozens of communities across the South, with some important reverberations in the North, and across the world as well. Usually initiated by courageous home-grown black leaders such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham and Victoria Gray of Palmers Crossing, Miss., the determined local groups often called upon national or South-wide organizations to help them in their campaigns.

Late in 1961, Shuttlesworth, who was part of the King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), asked Martin Luther King Jr. and SCLC to come help the Birmingham movement. It faced a level of continuing white terrorism that led the black community to call their city "Bombingham," referring, of course, to the deadly violence they encountered whenever they attempted to challenge the white segregationist powers who were determined to keep black people in a submissive, separate, and dominated role.

When King and SCLC decided to respond to Shuttlesworth and move onto the Birmingham scene, Rosemarie and I were already friends and co-workers with Martin and Coretta, and King asked us to come participate in the struggle for the transformation of Birmingham. So we were present and in the line of marchers when King, his co-worker Ralph Abernathy, and others were arrested in early April 1963.

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An Alternative to American Apartheid

Cienpies Design / Shutterstock.com
Take by hands people group in circle shape. Cienpies Design / Shutterstock.com

When Frederick Douglas assembled with other representatives at the National Colored Convention of 1853, they collectively condemned the nationwide epidemic of racial discrimination. As the gathering intended to discuss the circumstances and possibilities of “coloreds” (as they were called then), they recognized the various ways that “scorn and contempt” were heaped upon them — for no justifiable reason — by the white-skinned racial majority.

In remembrance of Douglas’ critique surrounding his 19th century “white countrymen,” and in recognition of our annual celebration of Black History Month, we in the U.S. continue to mourn the deep divisions that occur due to racial misunderstanding.  In other words, as we take an inventory of race relations roughly 195 years after Frederick Douglas was born, we recognize that racial ignorance among far too many of our citizens continues to result in a disturbing level of collective indifference and social inequality.

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Cody ChesnuTT's Landing on a Hundred is a classic soul album, from the infectious grooves and vocals to recurrent themes of personal and social redemption (comparisons include Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield). Vibration Vineyard

Reclaimed Voices

A team of actors, playwrights, and activists help Ugandan teens, many of them survivors of abduction by the Lord's Resistance Army, courageously share their stories with their community—and, through the documentary After Kony: Staging Hope, with the world. First Run Feature

Exile and Welcome

In Kind of Kin, by Rilla Askew, a rural Oklahoma family finds itself torn from within and without when its patriarch is arrested for harboring undocumented immigrants in his barn. Sometimes heart-rending, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, this novel deftly explores issues of faith, family, immigration, and economic hardship in the heartland. Ecco

Defiant Prayer

The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation, by Stephen R. Haynes, tells an inspiring, lesser-known story of the civil rights era: the 1964-65 campaign by groups of white and black students to challenge segregation in local churches. Oxford

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Riding the Bus to Equality

School bus interior, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com
School bus interior, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

Every morning at 7:15, the doors of our school open wide to a line of bus riders ready to come inside. "Hello, Jaheem. Hi, Kiara. Hey, Imani. Hope you're having a good day, Omar," I call out as the students walk past me to the cafeteria for breakfast. I stand at the doors for a moment and watch the big, yellow buses puff their diesel exhaust and chug their way to the garage until it's time for their afternoon run.

Is there a more universal symbol for public schools than a big, yellow school bus?

Sub-Human: A Justification of Exploitation

Declaration of Independence language, Frank Chang / Shutterstock.com
Declaration of Independence language, Frank Chang / Shutterstock.com

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness (The Declaration of Independence, 1776)."

These words are some of the most familiar and beloved in the English language, as they offer a moral vision for humanity, and a standard to which the United States of America should strive. 

While such expressions of freedom should indeed be cherished, we often forget the harsh reality that many contributors of the Declaration of Independence were also active participants in the brutal act of slavery. As the English abolitionist Thomas Day wrote in 1776: “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.” 

In addition to racial inequality, while Abigail Adams reminded her husband John to “remember the ladies” during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, her warnings were mostly disregarded, and as a result, women were also marginalized, and they were relegated as dependents of men, without the power to own property, make contracts, or vote. In other words, John Adams’ reply to Abigail’s challenge was far from considerate: “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh …”

Racism Alive and Well in Jasper, Texas

Jana Birchum / Getty Images
Members of the Byrd family attend the funeral of James Byrd in 1998. Jana Birchum / Getty Images

In June of 1998, three presumed white supremacists from Jasper, Texas severely beat and then murdered James Byrd, Jr. by tying him to a pick-up truck and dragging his body for miles.  This incident has made the town infamous and, unfortunately, the racial divide continues to linger. According to a report in The New York Times, the city’s first African-American police chief has been fired by a predominantly white city council, prompting the former chief to take legal action and the NAACP to seek a federal investigation.

Even more shocking are the sentiments expressed by some of the town’s leaders. 

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