National Edition

March on Washington showcased religious roots of Civil Rights movement

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

Rieder, who examined the letter's origins and significance in the book "Gospel of Freedom," said the epistle, partly written from a dimly lit jail cell, played a key role in awakening a broader white audience both within and without the church to how segregation contradicted Christian, Jewish and overall American values of equality and justice.

Rieder explained that the religious leaders and activists who sat on the rostrum at the Lincoln Memorial represented a "confluence of a major part of the black movement with the larger ferment in American Christianity and Judaism" collectively standing up against a status quo of racism that they argued had no theological or constitutional justification.

Morris said there was also a practical purpose to broadening the movement's base of support beyond the black church. Organizers said the event would attract 100,000 to the nation's capital, which would require the participation and resources of others, and King saw religious groups as potential allies.

"They were needing allies from many different groups, and with the movement rooted in moral and religious precepts it made a great deal of sense to reach out to various religious groups," Morris said.

The speeches

The other religious leaders participating in the March on Washington program were as aware as King of the influence faith would have in stamping out racism on a national and local level.

"If all members and all ministers … were indeed ready to stand and march with you for jobs and freedom for the Negro people, together with all the Roman Catholic Church and all the synagogues of America, the battle for full civil rights and dignity would be already won," Eugene Carson Blake, clerk for the United Presbyterian Church USA and vice chairman of race relations for the National Council of Churches of Christ in America, told the throngs that reached to the Washington Monument.

Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference of Interracial Relations, asked listeners to search their souls to determine how much longer they could tolerate discrimination and injustice.

"Who can call himself a man, and take part in a system of segregation which frightens the white man into denying what he knows to be right, into denying the law of his God?" he asked.

Expressing empathy for black Americans and their history of oppression, Rabbi Joachim Prinz recalled the Jewish people's suffering as slaves in Egypt and their persecution during the Nazi regime in Germany while citizens there looked on in silence.

"America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent," Prinz said. "It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community, but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself."

All the speakers, both religious and secular, conveyed the consistent message that segregation and discrimination were everyone's problem, not just the oppressed. But it was King's address that remains the most powerful and inspirational, articulating the sins of past and present America and describing what the future could hold if the nation would rid itself of racism.

Lischer, who wrote about King's life as a preacher and reformer in the book "Preacher King," said the Baptist pastor's speech drew from past sermons he had given and was refined to appeal to a larger audience beyond a congregation of sympathetic black believers.

Among the borrowed elements is the famous "I have a dream ..." segment, which Lischer said dated back to King's sermons in the late 1950s and was used shortly before at a gathering in Detroit. That lends some credence to the story that King launched into that part of his speech — which was not part of his prepared text — at the prompting of gospel singer Jackson, who called out from her seat on the rostrum, "Tell them about the dream, Martin."

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