As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington, we must reflect on faith leaders who like Jesus marched into the fray. They were practitioners of the promise of Jesus, and deliverers of the prophets Jeremiah and Elijah.
When you look back at faith leaders during the civil rights movement ,they often get lost on the pages of history. When you view the footage from this time you are aware of them because they are in uniform. They wear the collar of priestly ordination or the yarmulke of Judaic history and honor of God.
The event was designed to shed light on the political & social challenges African Americans continued to face across the country. Who better to face, defend and lobby on their behalf then those who stood in the gap of heaven and Earth.
Martin Luther King’s belief in God and his study of the scriptures that educated, nurtured and comforted King. His wasn’t a blind, emotional adherence to what he was taught. He questioned doctrine and welcomed the influence of other faiths as he armed himself with a sense of justice rooted in morality and ethics.
Those who participated in the March on Washington came from different races and faith denominations, but were all united for a just cause. Seeking to touch and to move the heart of America, they came to the nation’s capital and marched to advance the cause for Civil Rights, calling for an end to segregation. They called attention to the economic disparity that existed for African Americans and other minorities in this country. St. Paul in Sacred Scripture declares, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news!” (Romans 10:15), and the participants marched on foot and proclaimed the good news of our God who acts in favor of the marginalized in our country; they called upon the nation to enact legislation that would benefit those suffering and forgotten. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, which redirected the moral compass of the nation toward concern for the cause of justice. Even today his words continue to inspire us. Joining Dr. King at the March on Washington were other religious, civic and community leaders, among them Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, who delivered the invocation, and many Roman Catholic priests, religious sisters and brothers and lay faithful.
Looking back there were many who stood in the divide to send pleadings of prayers to the heavens that God’s people be freed.
- Rev. Robert Graetz is a white Lutheran minister who pastored a predominantly black congregation in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1950s. Civil rights activist Rosa Parks was his neighbor. He was living in Ohio when the March on Washington occurred. He has returned to Montgomery, Ala., where he is a consultant for the National Center for Civil Rights and African-American Culture at Alabama State University.
His lasting memory:
I told the leaders at that Methodist gathering that I was going to go to Washington; I’d be back in a couple of days. Afterwards I realized that Dr. King was right, that there was no way in the world I dared to miss that.
Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, a retired United Methodist minister, took part in numerous civil rights activities and introduced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally on the Boston Common. He was an assistant pastor of Union Methodist Church, and director of Cooper Community Center, both in Boston, at the time of the march.
His lasting memory:
The march was an expression of what I later realized; if I had not become active in the civil rights movement, I doubt that I would have continued as a minister in the Methodist, now United Methodist, Church. Faith that is not intertwined with that that is taking place in the world, is for me, a “cheap faith.”
Rabbi David Teitelbaum:
“This was living out what Judaism itself has been teaching all along, that you have to help the oppressed, the underprivileged, not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
Rabbi Israel Dresner went to jail each summer for the next three years as he brought ever larger groups of rabbis and ministers to join the struggle in the South. “I was a Reform rabbi, but I always wore a yarmulke,” said Dresner, now rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Wayne, N.J. “I wanted people to know I was Jewish.
The president of the NAACP at the time was Kivie Kaplan, a prominent member of the Reform movement’s social action commission. Kaplan bought the Washington building that became the headquarters for the movement’s new Religious Action Center and also housed the fledgling Leadership Council on Civil Rights. Black and Jewish lawyers on a table in that office drafted what became the major civil rights laws of the mid-‘60s, recounted Al Vorspan, who directed the Reform commission for 50 years. It was a time when Jews and blacks often found common cause in the struggle for justice in a country where both had been oppressed.
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