Preachers, politicians and family members of Black people who had been killed or shot by police gathered on the National Mall on the anniversary of the March on Washington.
They called for new legislation to address racial inequities in the country.
And they urged people to vote.
Among the speakers Friday (Aug. 28) was a son of Martin Luther King Jr.
He urged participants — who watched on television, online and in-person — to continue the work of the 1960s with what his father called the “coalition of conscience” by seeking a country that seeks love and health and dispels fear and hate.
“To achieve that America, we need to raise our voices and cast our votes,” King said. “There’s a knee upon the neck of democracy and our nation can only live so long without the oxygen of freedom.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, and other speakers echoed some of the same themes enunciated by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the first march in 1963.
“We come in the same spiritual lineage,” said Sharpton, organizer of the Commitment March, after members of King’s family addressed the crowd. “’cause I want this country to know that even with your brutality you can’t rob us of our dreams.”
Sharpton announced the event — also called the “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” march — as he preached at the funeral for George Floyd, a Black man who died in May under the knee of a white police officer.
Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial before thousands, Sharpton said that Black people have long fought bigotry. But he noted that members of the interracial crowd that gathered in the same spot where others marched in 1963 have the power to move beyond their circumstances.
“We are the dream keepers, which is why we come today — black and white and all races and religions and sexual orientations — to say that this dream is still alive. You might have killed the dreamer but you can’t kill the dream.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, left center, makes his way to the podium to speak during the March on Washington, Friday Aug. 28, 2020, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, on the 57th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Before the throngs of people started marching to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the granddaughter and a son of the famous civil rights leader took turns at the microphone to speak where their predecessor had appeared 57 years before.
“Americans are marching together — many for the first time — and we’re demanding real, lasting structural change,” said Martin Luther King III. “We are socially distanced but spiritually united. We are masking our faces but not our faith in freedom.”
The crowd was addressed by speakers mostly in person and some, including Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, by video. Gospel singer BeBe Winans sang an original composition that he wrote to his then-15-year-old son after Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police in 2015.
“In one moment, dreams are scattered,” he sang. “Our sons and daughters matter. Black lives matter.”
Winans performed in between brief remarks by family members and lawyers of Black people who had been killed. They recalled their loved ones, thanked the crowd for their support and urged the marchers to vote. Many wore masks or T-shirts with names or images of their relatives.
“There are two systems of justice in the United States,” said the father and namesake of Jacob Blake, the man who was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday. “There’s a white system and there’s a Black system. The Black system ain’t doing so well. But we’re going to stand up.”
While the elder Blake cited Allah, the Muslim name for God, in his remarks, other parents mentioned Bible verses as they urged continuing advocacy.
Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, whose killing in 2012 led to the Black Lives Matter movement, said her favorite passage is Proverbs 3:5-6, which begins: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not unto your own understanding.”
“Even though it looks dark, I want to tell you to be encouraged,” she said. “Don’t stop saying Black Lives Matter. Don’t stop peaceful protesting. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop unifying. Stand together.”
In the pause between speeches, many of which called for legislation to improve voting rights and reform police agencies, the crowds and speakers often engaged in a call-and-response recitation of the names of people who had been killed over the years.
Event co-host Mark Thompson, a radio show host who was helping introduce the various speakers, acknowledged that many of the people representing those names didn’t have a chance to come to the microphone before it was time to march.
“Sisters and brothers,” he said, “the problem is the police have killed so many of us there’s not even enough time for us to hear from every family.”
Like his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the long-standing congressman was an ordained Black Baptist minister. It meant that he not only knew how to parse legislative briefs but also ancient biblical texts and extrapolate wisdom from them to address social issues of great urgency.
For Christians like Lewis, preaching, though not an end in itself, is a means by which God reminds a society of God’s concern for community wellness, life, human dignity and freedom in a less-than-perfect world.
Preaching, in their understanding, tells the truth about suffering in the contexts of fear and death. Ultimately it declares that evil and despair have an appointed end. Because of this, as John Lewis said in his posthumously penned op-ed: “Each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up, and speak out.”
This is why Black preaching and Black preachers matter.
But understanding Lewis as a preacher requires far more unpacking than one might imagine. As an ordained Baptist minister and a scholar who studies the art of preaching sermons and the evolution of the Black preacher in the U.S., I understand firsthand why suspicion has long accompanied African American preachers into America’s pulpits and often extended into the halls of Congress and even newsrooms.
Preachers wear performative masks. Who ministers understand themselves to be has major implications for how they prepare and perform sermons. If they see their role as social justice advocate, they will speak and act in ways that condemn oppressive systems. But if they see themselves more as offering pastoral care, they will focus on therapeutic matters requiring counseling and other means of congregational support.
A preacher’s persona or “prosopon” – meaning “face” in Greek – is not simply a mask behind which she or he performs a role in a socioreligious drama but is part of their being. The role and speaker are one.
Preachers fall broadly under different personas. Alongside the preacher as “social activist,” there is the “clerico-politician” skilled in the art and science of government politics. Then there is the “evangelical-moralist,” who typically has an encyclopedic knowledge of scripture and is skilled in teaching Christian doctrine.
Finally, there is the “entrepreneurial agent” who focuses on building financial and social capital for themselves and their congregations.
Yet, many outside the Black Church community remain badly informed about the complex roles performed by Black preachers in our society.
Take for example Tony Evans, who is both a pastor and broadcaster. As an evangelical-moralist, he places strong emphasis on the believer’s need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through spiritual conversion, behavior modification, evangelism and soul regeneration. Proselytizing is paramount.
Megachurch preacher Bishop T.D. Jakes, as an entrepreneurial agent, is a highly pragmatic church growth strategist largely interested in enterprising pursuits and works.
MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton straddles the clerico-politician and social activist identities when stirring public discontent to shame the cruel in signal moments.
Following George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a white police officer, Sharpton preached two eulogies – one in Minneapolis and the other in Houston, Floyd’s city of birth. Both of Sharpton’s sermons elicited exuberant “Amens” of celebration from face-masked mourners. More significantly, his messages had a global effect, bringing together a broad a cross-section of culturally diverse listeners.
No matter what persona they chose to adopt, Black clerics have long been encouraged to mute their voices in front of white audiences or adopt preaching methods not native to their cultural habitats.
Without these pioneering white clerics’ preaching influence on American culture there would be no Rev. Billy Graham. Graham was dubbed “America’s Pastor” and the most celebrated preaching evangelist of our time.
Many Black preachers have modeled their preaching methods after these clerics without questioning their ideological origins and philosophical heritage.
In contrast, Black preachers like John Lewis, son of Alabama sharecroppers, embraced a preaching style focused on Jesus as a disinherited figure and grounded in a philosophy of nonviolence.
Preachers with sermons of this sort prize words that speak to distressing problems affecting society’s most vulnerable populations over rhetorical methods placing logic and Western philosophy at the center.
Sermons preached in rural or urban settings that helped African Americans make sense of their plight were far more uplifting than sermons rooted in the Celtic, Nordic, and Roman cultures of Europe.
Politics and the pulpit
The political and religious stakes are always higher for Black preachers than their racial counterparts because Black communities expect their preachers will do more than preach Sunday sermons.
Georgia U.S. Senate candidate and pastor of Dr King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, who officiated at Lewis’ funeral, believes as did Lewis that communities are best served when preachers work within the system. By doing so they can exercise their influence through crafting legislation, political antagonism and forming alliances deemed advantageous for the communities they serve.
A certain moral gravitas accompanies such work.
This is why the recent deaths of John Lewis and fellow preachers Joseph Lowery, and C.T. Vivian are cause for communal mourning. These religious voices are irreplaceable in the culture.
Rosyln M. Brock reflects on how her great-grandmother, Cousie Pittman, could not vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, despite the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920. On a video published by the First Woman Voter Campaign, she talks about how Ms. Pittman, who lived in rural Florida and the segregated South, cast her first vote in the 1968 presidential election.
“My family often shares the story of how my grandmother would get dressed up in her Sunday Best, and wait for a ride to the polls on election day,” said Brock in the video.
Brock is Associate Minister at the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA, and a nationally recognized health policy advocate, social justice change agent, and noted public speaker. She holds the distinct honor of being the youngest person and fourth woman in 2010 elected to the role of National Board Chairman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in its history. Brock currently serves as its Chairman Emeritus.
The First Woman Voter campaign and national women’s organizations, such as the National Women’s History Museum, the League of Women’s Voters, and Obama’s When We All Vote, celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. This bipartisan campaign encourages women to pay tribute in a unique and personal short video to the first woman voter in their family or the one who most inspired them to vote. Four former first ladies, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Rev. Bernice A. King, and other high-profile women in academia, business, the arts, entertainment, government, and more fields are participating in the virtual video campaign. Even with the heartwarming messages by women of all races noting the 100-year milestone, Brock’s story and others underscore acknowledging that the struggle didn’t end in1920 for many Black women in the South.
“The history has to be told that black women were fighting for the right to vote in the 1800s, through the AME clubs, the black women’s clubs … the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs were active in the early 1800s well before the white women were organizing to think about coming into the public square,” said Brock. “White women can celebrate that they marched in 1912 or 1913 and then seven years later, in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed. Black women had to wait almost half a century until the 1965 Voting Rights Act before they had full, unfettered access. Now, many black women in the 1920s lived in the North and were able to vote. I was from South Florida. My grannies … it took us a little longer.”
August 2020 marks the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act’s passage, which, according to the Justice Department, is hailed as the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted a vital part of the Voting Rights Act, which required municipalities, counties, and states to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. It didn’t take long for voter suppression efforts to resume.
“I chose to participate in the campaign because it gave me an opportunity to share my great-grandmother’s first voting experience. And I believe it’s important as a black woman in today’s society to acknowledge the role that we did play and continue to play in securing the right to the franchise,” said Brock. “As many of us know, voting remains the only power that we have to affect change in our communities. And the only language that politicians seem to understand is the power of the vote. That’s why I believe so many today are trying to suppress votes by those in minority communities.”
According to a study last year by Pew Research, Millennials and Gen Z will make up 37% of the 2020 electorate. However, older generations are more likely to go to polls or actually vote. This year, voters are highly engaged, but concerns are mounting about difficulties in actually voting. That’s a big deal when so many critical issues are top of mind for many voters — access to affordable health care in the era of COVID-19 and beyond, violence and discriminatory policing, climate change, unemployment, and homelessness.
As a leader in the social justice, racial equity, and community investment space, Brock is inspired and hopeful as she sees the next generation push forward despite the obstacles and political games. Her philosophy is embodied in an African proverb: Care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.
“Courage must not skip this generation. And as Black women stand confidently now in their place of power, they no longer have to accept that they don’t belong at the political table or don’t have a seat. We’ve got to remember Shirley Chisholm, who said, “If they don’t have a seat for you at the table, you come in and bring your own folding chair, and you sit down.”
Grammy-winning gospel performer Kirk Franklin can’t be onstage these days but he’s featured virtually in an upcoming benefit to draw attention to poor children across the globe who are affected by COVID-19.
Franklin is joining World Vision, Food for the Hungry and Compassion International in the “Unite to Fight Poverty” virtual concert set to be televised and streamed online on Friday (Aug. 28) at 8:30 p.m. EDT on Daystar Television Network, Facebook, YouTube and PureFlix. It is also scheduled to air at 3 p.m. EDT Saturday on Fox Business.
Franklin, who won six Stellar Gospel Music Award trophies on Sunday, joins 20 other Christian artists for the two-hour fundraiser to aid the three Christian humanitarian organizations. Those groups are working to help families experiencing extreme poverty in the wake of the pandemic and natural disasters by providing hygiene supplies and clean water.
Franklin, who has traveled across the world, also recorded a new video of his song “Strong God” for Compassion to raise awareness about the crisis. Even as he’s drawing attention to the pandemic, he acknowledged it’s hard for him to not know when he’ll be able to perform in person again.
“I miss people,” said the host of the “Sunday Best” televised singing competition. “And I’m looking forward to getting back in front of people.”
Musician Kirk Franklin in 2019. Courtesy photo
Franklin, 50, talked to Religion News Service about the global effects of the coronavirus and his calls for the church to respond to racial inequities, but he declined to comment on whether his related boycott of Trinity Broadcasting Network and the Dove Awards continues.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Oh, no, no, not at all. Not at all. Not at all. And I’m really appreciative and grateful for everything I get. ’Cause I know nothing is owed to me.
This is the first time that World Vision, Compassion International and Food for the Hungry have worked together on an effort like this benefit. Why did you decide to join this joint effort?
It’s because I believe in the ideals of what they stand for. And I know that even though there are many disparities and deficiencies in America, we are still a blessed country. I’ve been blessed to travel the globe and I can totally understand how, even in the middle of this global pandemic, there are many countries and many individuals that are not able to just pivot and to diversify to survive. I can totally see why this would be such a great moment to come together because we’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime. And it makes me so proud of them to see them unify for the same cause.
What song or songs did you perform and why did you choose those selections?
Well, my song selection was not really based on the mood or the cause of the event. I just wanted to do music I thought would make people feel good. I performed “Love Theory” and “Just for Me.” I’ve been blessed by God’s guidance to have a whole bunch of songs and at this stage of my career, whatever I pick is going to be something that just feels good. But sometimes it’s hard to pick. And so you just deal with what you’re feeling at the moment.
You went to the Dominican Republic with Compassion International. How recently did you go and how long were you there?
Believe it or not, it was right before the world shut down. It was in January. And I was there almost a week.
What is it that struck you particularly about the trip?
How many people in the world still live marginalized lives, that still live under the poverty line, and how many people are forgotten by the 1%. That is just a mystery to me. And it can make me even, at times, question God’s bigger divine plan, even though I have to choose to believe, when it’s hard to believe. But that is something that has always fascinated me.
A recording set for the “Unite to Fight Poverty” virtual concert. Courtesy photo
How has COVID-19 affected you personally?
We’ve had people we know, family members have died, people in the churches we’ve been members of have died or people have been hospitalized. So we’ve seen it firsthand, we’ve seen it up close. And then also I’m in the people business. And so many artists and churches and ministers and pastors, we’re in the job of touching people and there’s something very healing and therapeutic for the soul when we do. And we have not had the opportunity to do that for almost six months.
Has the death of George Floyd and other people, Black people in particular, in police-related incidents affected you personally?
Yes, yes, of course. I’ve been very outspoken. I’ve been very engaged. I’ve been very consistent in my conversations about the disparity of how these actions are in the legal system, in the systems there to protect people, but they don’t protect all people. And also been very vocal about the lack of the church’s voice in social issues that affect people that go to these churches, that sit in these pews. And the lack of information or the lack of conversation has been really deafening.
You appeared in March on Trinity Broadcasting Network, and you discussed these very issues you just spoke of. Has anything new come of that time with TBN or any new steps since then?
I can just say that my heart and my passion won’t stop in any conversation I have that has to do with social injustice or the injustices of any group of people the Bible calls Christians to be engaged in. And, until we are more visible, more visual, more outspoken and more committed to these causes, I will continue to have conversations.
So did that appearance in some way mark an end of your boycott of TBN and the Dove Awards, or is that continuing?
Musician Kirk Franklin in 2019. Courtesy photo
I will just say I will continue to have conversations until the conversations are not needed.
I’m just going to ask one more time: In October, do you expect to be on the Dove Awards?
In October, I continue to keep the narrative of God’s heart and social injustice, and the church’s lack of engagement. We should be the ones leading the narrative and until we do, I will continue to speak up and speak loud and humble and with love until there’s tangible change.
But it sounds like you’re not ready to answer the question about whether you’re going to be there or not.
I will be where I’m supposed to be with this message. I will be at whatever platform I’m called to be able to talk about how God’s love should include everybody. And, until that happens, I will continue to preach love, truth, justice and grace.
Since you are an artist of faith who performs about faith, how do you have faith as you go through this time of the coronavirus pandemic and not being able to perform the way you’d like?
I started going back to therapy and that’s been very, very good for me. I’m a Black man that goes to therapy. I talk, I pray, and they are synonymous. It has been really, really good to be able to have somebody to be able to help you as you help other people. That’s something that can be very, very encouraging. For the first time in history, we had so many pandemics that were contemporaneous: You have racial pandemics, you have political pandemics, you have economic pandemics. So those things can be very daunting for someone that is looked at to be able to try to have all the answers.
This story was produced byWisconsin Watch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative reporting organization that focuses on government integrity and quality of life issues in Wisconsin.
On May 31, the day after violence first broke out on State Street in Madison during demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, a transformation began.
Businesses up and down Madison’s defining corridor shuttered. Plywood sheets covered windows — some preemptively and some to cover windows already smashed by looters.
“It looked kind of dead before the murals,” said Amira Caire, a 22-year-old Madisonian and one of over a hundred artists who lent their time, talent and paint to an effort to decorate the barren spaces with colorful messages of pride, perseverance, anger, justice and unity.
The mural project began on May 31, when both the mayor and Common Council president contacted Madison Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf to request a “rapid response” art program for the shuttered storefronts. Working with her program’s community cultural partners, Wolf reached out to artists who had worked with the city before. In the following days, as more businesses covered their windows, the Arts Program posted an open call for artists interested in participating in the project.
The mural project was funded through another program, Arts in Public Places Looking Forward, which had been established just a few weeks earlier to support artists who have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Madison Arts Program also prioritized artists who had been affected by racial violence and injustice, Wolf said.
Over the ensuing two weeks, more than 100 murals were painted as commissions from the city. Many more works of graffiti and other public art appeared in spaces not used by officially commissioned artists. Nearly all of the pieces focused on support for the Black Lives Matter movement or called for an end to police misconduct.
“I feel that the symbolic language of visual culture can reach people,” Wolf said. “We have to reach people on many different levels to help them understand the devastating effect that racism has had on this country.”
Wolf said the city officially ended the mural project on June 14. State Street businesses have since begun to unboard, taking down the murals from their windows and doors.
It is not yet clear what will happen to the artwork after it is removed. The decision lies with individual businesses and property owners about when to reopen their storefronts. Wolf said that Madison’s Central Business Improvement District, which works to coordinate and support many downtown businesses, was keeping some of the murals in storage while a plan is formulated. The city is currently collecting input through an online poll and conversations with artists to decide how to move forward. Options being considered include temporary exhibitions, auctions, or donating the works.
“I can’t speak for everyone else’s work, but I do hope they aren’t simply archived and forgotten,” said Simone Lawrence, a local artist whose portraits of Malcolm X and Colin Kaepernick have recently been taken down from the Driftless Studio windows near the top of State Street. “I’d like to see an exhibition. Even more ideally, I’d like to see them sold and the proceeds go to Black-owned organizations and/or directly to the artist.”