March on Washington shows diversity of Black church activism

If history has its way, the March on Washington of 1963 will forever be deemed as a singular moment in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously stood at the Lincoln Memorial and told the world about his dream. However, to curtail this event to a single speech, or even one man, disrespects the collective work of numerous activists, leaders, and everyday citizens who made the event possible. The March was a product of collaboration and coalition-building. It wasn’t simply a “mass moment” but rather a manifestation of a “mass movement.”

Let’s be clear, Reverend King was surrounded by an array of Black clergy who were key figures in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). These men and women were critical to the fight against racial inequality. Yet, labor leaders of all races and white clergymen, also were pivotal in the planning and execution of the event. As Rev. William Barber accurately points out to theGrio, this mass mobilization can’t be watered down to just “one man, one speech.”

The role of the Black Church during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States is both profound and complex. It was a hub of political and social activity, an organizational base, and a spiritual refuge for Black Americans fighting against segregation and for broader civil rights. The Black Church’s role in civil rights didn’t end in the 1960s. Many churches were involved in struggles against systemic inequalities that persisted and persist beyond formal desegregation—such as advocating for better education, healthcare, and housing for Black communities, and more recently, against police brutality and other social injustices.

However, the Black Church, often cited as the religious cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement, is far from monolithic. Back in the day, not every Black pastor advocated civil disobedience or nonviolent confrontations. Fast-forward to today, some remain skeptical of the Black Lives Matter movement or the fight for LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. The Black Church isn’t just one thing; it’s many things. According to theGrio, Robert Franklin, a professor at Emory University, states that some Black faith leaders are fully engaged in social justice activism, whereas others have adopted a more conservative stance.

So, why do we persist in using this umbrella term, “Black Church,” that cannot possibly capture the ideological and theological spectrum of Black religiosity today? Even now, faith communities are rising above the limitations of their respective congregations, embracing multiracial demographics and broader social issues. Dr. King’s former church, Ebenezer Baptist, has become one such multiracial congregation, signaling a move toward what King termed the “beloved community.”

The idea of the “beloved community” stretches beyond the boundaries of race and religion. Barber’s modern incarnation of the Poor People’s Campaign exemplifies this, drawing supporters from various faiths and racial backgrounds. If any movement today fails to address an array of intersecting issues, it does not honor the true spirit of the March on Washington.

According to theGrio, Reverend Jacqui Lewis of New York City’s Middle Collegiate Church suggests that perhaps it’s time to focus on “Black faith,” a term that can accommodate activism both inside and outside the church. The Civil Rights Movement was not confined to Black male clergy in the south. It was a sum of its parts, including women, white allies, and every single person who made the choice to stand against injustice.

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. at the famous 1963 March on Washington. (AP Photo)

As we approach the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, it is clear that the fight for justice is far from over. While historically Black denominations continue to be involved, they will stand beside organizations like the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Anti-Defamation League, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. This eclectic group of co-chairs symbolizes the multifaceted struggle for equality and justice. We have made strides, but the journey ahead is long.

So as we commemorate, let’s also recalibrate our understanding. Let’s pay homage not just to the icons, but also to the countless unnamed individuals who fought for a just world. The March on Washington wasn’t an event but a catalyst, one that sprung from a rich, diverse tapestry of activism.

Before and after the pivotal year of 1963, Black churches have showcased a range of priorities and political philosophies. Early in the 20th century, leaders like Booker T. Washington pushed for Black progress through education and economic self-sufficiency, sidestepping direct confrontations against segregation. This notion of self-sufficiency was later echoed by the Nation of Islam, which added the layer of Black Nationalism. Clergy like Father Divine and Reverend Ike gained considerable wealth by preaching optimistic visions of prosperity.

TheGrio cites that Franklin, categorizes contemporary Black pastors into two broad camps. One group, he says, actively engages in social justice work, aligning themselves as ‘prophetic radicals’ in the legacy of Dr. King. The other, however, takes a more conservative and individualistic stance, opting for less activism and more cautious risk-taking.

This diversity hints at why the term “Black Church” might be increasingly limited in encapsulating the multifaceted roles and views within Black religious communities today. The upcoming 60th Anniversary of the March on Washington, for instance, lacks a single faith-based organization as a co-chair, though it includes groups like the NAACP, the National Urban League, and others committed to social justice.

That said, it’s important to recognize the foundational role that the Black Church played in the Civil Rights Movement. As stated by the Conference of National Black Churches (CNBC), the nation’s six largest historically Black denominations are resolute in continuing their role in the fight for equality. They acknowledge the strides made but also recognize, especially in the wake of recent events and the COVID-19 pandemic, that there’s still much to be done.

While national organizations like the SCLC gained considerable attention, much of the Civil Rights Movement was fought on a local level, where the role of the Black Church was even more vital. Local pastors and their congregations often bore the brunt of white supremacist backlash and were crucial in organizing local boycotts, protests, and community meetings.

“The Black Church was the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement, which is why we are resolved to play a continued role in the fight for equality,” said the CNBC board, according to theGrio. “While we have made strides over the decades, recent events threatened to impact the right to vote, to quality education, and to good-paying jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic was a reminder that we have a long way to go, in so many aspects of life, as we strive for equality and justice.”

The Black Church has long been a cornerstone in the struggle for civil rights, providing not only spiritual guidance but also organizational support, financial resources, and a space for political discourse. The churches’ multifaceted engagement—then and now—reflects the complexity and diversity of Black America itself, a reminder that the path to equality is neither linear nor singular, but a collective journey that accommodates various approaches and philosophies.

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