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.