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.

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