National Edition

March on Washington showcased religious roots of Civil Rights movement

Published: Saturday, Aug. 24 2013 12:00 p.m. MDT

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 50 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 blacks 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.

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