March on Washington showcased religious roots of Civil Rights movement
Before that moment, King had been reading from a manuscript detailing how the nation had not lived up to its promise that all people are free and guaranteed certain rights. But at a point in the original text marked by an asterisk, King looked out on the audience and expounded on a future filled with opportunity and without discrimination or bigotry.
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," King said.
Lischer describes how instinct took over as King looked up into clouds as he spoke, giving a familiar signal to black worshippers that he was prophesying and looking into the future. King described his southern homeland transformed "into an oasis of freedom and justice," and then borrowed from Old Testament prophets and patriotic songs before closing with the lyrics of a black spiritual, "Free at last, Free at last, great God almighty, we are free at last."
"It's poetry, which is heightened speech, and heightened speech is filled with metaphor and reaches down deeper into the human heart than prosaic speech," Lischer said. "It's not enough on an occasion like that to just state the truth. You have to sing the truth to reach people."
King, the son and grandson of Baptist pastors, was a master of the prophetic style of preaching common in black Christian churches, Lischer said. But King stepped out of the mold by taking that preaching tradition outside the walls of the church.
"He joined the tradition of prophetic preaching with certain forms of progressive political thinking, creating a brand new audience for the black sermon who had never anything like that before," Lischer said. "He enlarged the congregation to create a national congregation."
The goal of the March on Washington to enlist a broad coalition of religious groups to push forward the civil rights agenda worked.
Presbyterian ministers and laity traveled to Mississippi to register voters. Mennonites and Quakers formed missions to help rebuild black Christian churches that had been burned or destroyed by segregationists. And the white activists who took part in protests and voter registration drives in the South were "ridiculously disproportionately Jewish," Rieder said.
"King's advisers in the North also understood the importance of Jewish financial support to the civil rights movement," he added.
The Civil Rights Act, which had lingered in Congress the year of the March on Washington, was signed into law the following year. The Voting Rights Act came in 1965.
During the past decade, scholars and historians have reexamined the Civil Rights movement, with some making the case that without religion and the belief that God was on their side, the movement's organizers and footsoldiers wouldn't have endured the violent backlash to boycotts, marches, civil disobedience to segregation laws and other direct action.
"It was natural for blacks to turn to the church in the civil rights movement as it was always this solid rock amid oppression," Morris said. "You could summon up a great deal of courage through religion. It could empower people to confront all kinds of obstacles, including violence."
And religion proved to be an effective tool to enlist others outside of the black church to join in the cause. Morris said that was mainly done by reminding Christians and Jews that they couldn't call themselves true believers if they stood by and allowed racism and oppression to go on around them.
"All religions stand on moral grounds. Theologically speaking there was not much difference between the black and white churches," Morris said. "The Civil Rights movement challenged the white church to live up to all of the principles that they embraced."
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