A Rally to end racism
On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, faith groups rally to combat systemic racism
On the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder, one of the activist pastors who has tried to follow in his footsteps spoke of the task at hand.
“We cannot be those who merely love the tombs of the prophets,” said the Rev. William Barber II, addressing an anti-racism event in the District via video as he attended another commemoration in Memphis. “We do not celebrate assassinations and killings of our prophets. We find the place they fell; we reach down in the blood; we pick up the baton and carry it forward. And we must.”
At memorial events in Washington, Memphis, Atlanta and other cities, religious activists marked King’s death in that spirit on Wednesday: with pledges to carry on his work of tackling systemic racism.
In Memphis, the location of King’s assassination, thousands attended a conference organized by the Southern Baptist Convention to discuss combating racism while civil rights activists including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. John Lewis remembered King in remarks Wednesday evening. In Atlanta, King’s home town, bells rang at his gravesite at the same moment when he was shot 50 years ago.
As dawn broke at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in
the District, the Rev. Dawn Sanders offered one of the first prayers of the day.
“King’s blood calls out to us. And what are we prepared to do? We thank you, God, for all that will be said and done. But we will not leave here without You pricking our consciousness,” Sanders said, her voice booming.
Hundreds of people had gathered ahead of the day-long event organized by the National Council of Churches, a network of 38 mostly progressive denominations — white and black — as well as several major African American Christian umbrella groups and the largest American Jewish denomination, among others.
During a six-hour rally on the Mall, pastors, actors and activists spoke of political issues that people of faith should tackle, from education to environmental justice to incarceration.
It was all in keeping with where King found himself in the years before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The civil rights leader had shifted from a focus on achieving legal racial equality to something broader: social and economic justice for all. Now, after a decade of talk about a “postracial America” and a focus on interracial dialogue in some quarters of American life, many faith groups said they are returning to where King left off.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a well-known Christian ministry, said white Christians such as himself must confess the sins of colonialism and racism, “including in the highest levels of power in this capital city.” He said confession must lead to action, specifically calling on the crowd to fight voter suppression in the next election. Racism, he said, is more than individual behavior, and repentance is more than saying “you’re sorry.”
Frederick Haynes, pastor of a Texas megachurch, said a lack of sufficient attention to systemic problems over the past 50 years has led the country to its present state. He compared the day after the 2016 presidential election to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That morning, he said, America “woke up to the eclipse of decency, honesty and integrity. And now we are in the chaotic darkness of racism and military madness . . . agreed . . . because we have not responded to Martin Luther King.”
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, summarized the ways their lives would have been different if they were black — from the houses their families were able to buy, to the bank loans they received, to the punishments they avoided for crimes such as marijuana possession. They concluded they never would have been able to found their ice cream company.
“There is this myth that the government isn’t responsible for wealth disparity and therefore isn’t responsible for fixing it. But we know now, the shape of our world then and now isn’t an accident. They are a result of deliberate government policy. It’s a fact and not debatable,” Cohen said.
Rally participants spoke of their own experiences with racism, and expressed determination to fight on.
Eric McLauglin, 14, came to the rally with his cousin and his grandmother Sheila Carson Carr, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7. He said African Americans such as his family members “aren’t free. People act like we’re slaves.” He and Carr said their family recently went to an amusement park in Maryland, and one of their young cousins was asked to get off a ride to make room for a white child.
Carr, a third-generation Washingtonian, pointed to the problems that have endured long past King’s death: the supermarkets that leave black city neighborhoods, until they are gentrified. The congressional leaders who refused from day one to work with the first black president.
But she said she was not discouraged. “No, oh no!” she said, pointing to Barber and other modern-day leaders who inspire her to keep pushing.
Amy Reumann, director of advocacy for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said churches need to repent for their own systemic racism. “It’s still going on in the church. We see it in our denomination. We see clergy of color waiting longer for positions. They are still battling for acceptance,” she said.
Conservative evangelicals in Memphis are also working to define what ending racism looks like. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, was shocked that what they expected to be a small April 4 conference drew about 3,500 pastors and lay leaders.
With about 15 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the country’s largest Protestant denomination.
Russell Moore, the commission’s leader, said the group wanted to do a specifically evangelical event “given the silence and/or hostility to civil rights that often came from evangelical churches during the time of King. We want to talk about why that was, and how do we apply the Gospel to questions of racial justice and reconciliation?”
As part of the D.C. anti-racism event, organizers will train participants Thursday morning on how to lobby their members of Congress. They will teach attendees how to communicate to elected officials that their constituents care about issues such as incarceration and economic inequality. Then they will show how to monitor
“It’s a long arc. There has been some progress, but the arc is very long.” Carolyn McCarthy of Milwaukee, on the fight against racism since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
the officials’ votes to hold them responsible.
In an interview at the rally, Black Lives Matter supporter DeRay Mckesson noted that the church — as well as universities — was among the only places black people could organize in King’s time, and therefore the civil rights movement was “born out of” those institutions. Today, churches figure less prominently in civil rights organizing, not only because society is more secular but because social media offers another way to organize.
Mckesson described King’s call as a two-part message — moral courage and systemic change. “The call for moral courage resonates most deeply in the context of God,” he said. “If you believe in God, that comes with this idea of a sense of right and wrong. The call for moral courage just lands differently these days because God isn’t as present in the movement.”
While he was raised in a Baptist church and considers himself a Christian, he said his faith “is bigger than church.” He thinks King would recognize his own tactics of direct mass action in the Black Lives Matter movement — but “would be in awe of our tools.”
Christian leaders often debate how to approach fighting racism. Does it center on deepening of interracial relationships? Or should it be about marshaling power to change policies? Some black faith leaders will not even use the word “reconciliation” because they think that over the decades, it has kept the focus on the small, interpersonal level rather than systemic change.
The Rev. Jennifer Harvey, one of the keynote speakers, rejected reconciliation as the old practice of the church. “We must not ask ‘ how’ to unity and reconciliation. Our own history makes clear that that’s not the question our brothers and sisters of color have been asking since the mid-’60s,” she said, recounting a litany of failures by white churches to stand up for racial justice. “They’ve been demanding we call ourselves, the church, to repent and repair. They’ve not been asking for more togetherness. They’ve been organizing and insisting on justice.”
Debbie Davis and Carolyn McCarthy listened in the back of the crowd — way over the crowd. The friends from Milwaukee stood on 10-foot stilts, Davis dressed as Lady Liberty and McCarthy as Lady Justice, their long robes whipping in the wind.
Both women work with refugees — McCarthy as a nurse and Davis as a therapist — and both said they wanted to proclaim “American” values in the face of a presidential administration that they feel does not embrace liberty and justice.
Of the fight against racism, 50 years after King, McCarthy said: “It’s a long arc. There has been some progress, but the arc is very long.”
TOP: Marchers walk around the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as they make their way to the Mall for the ACT to End Racism rally. ABOVE: Stephanie Watson, from Lillington, N.C., listens at the rally, which was held on the 50th anniversary of King’s...
ABOVE: Pastor Teresa Thomas Boyd of Milwaukee prays before marching past the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington on the way to the ACT to End Racism Rally on the 50th anniversary of King’s death. RIGHT: People rally in Memphis, carrying signs...
Marchers touch the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on their way to the ACT to End Racism rally. The day-long event was organized by the National Council of Churches. For more photos of the rally, visit wapo.st/endracism.
Eleanor Young, from Columbus, Ohio, holds a sign referencing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the anniversary of his death.