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.”
That people of the cloth are at the forefront of the current protests over police brutality should not be a surprise.
From the earliest times of the United States’ history, religious leaders have led the struggle for liberation and racial justice for Black Americans. As an ordained minister and a historian, I see it as a common thread running through the history of the United States, from Black resistance in the earliest periods of slavery in the antebellum South, through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and up to the Black Lives Matter movement today.
As Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matters, says: “The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight.”
Sojourner Truth was driven to anti-slavery activism by spiritual visions. GHI Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
For many Black religious leaders in the United States, civil rights and social justice are central to their spiritual calling. Informed by their respective faith traditions, it places religion within the Black American experience while also being informed by African culture and the traumatic experience of the Transatlantic trade of African people.
We see this in Malcolm X’s 1964 exhortation that Black Americans should form bonds with African nations and “migrate to Africa culturally, philosophically and spiritually.” Malcolm X’s desire to internationalize the struggle in the U.S. after his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca also speaks to the role he saw Islam having in the civil rights movement.
“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem,” he wrote in a letter during his visit to Saudi Arabia. The struggle of Black Americans informed Malcolm X’s reading of the Quran.
Similarly, the interaction between religious text and real-world struggle informed earlier Black civil rights and anti-slavery leaders. Slave revolt leader Nat Turner, for example, saw rebellion as the work of God, and drew upon biblical texts to inspire his actions.
As the historian and Turner biographer Patrick Breen noted in an article for Smithsonian Magazine, “Turner readily placed his revolt in a biblical context, comparing himself at some times to the Old Testament prophets, at another point to Jesus Christ.” In his “Confessions,” dictated to a white lawyer after his 1831 arrest, Turner quoted the Gospel of Luke and alluded to numerous other passages from the Bible.
Turner had visions he interpreted as signs from God encouraging him to revolt.
Such prophetic visions were not uncommon to early anti-slavery leaders – Sojourner Truth and Jarena Lee were both spurred to action after God revealed himself to them. Lee’s anti-slavery preaching is also an early example of the important role that black religious female leaders would have in the civil rights struggle.
In arguing for her right to spread God’s message, Lee asked: “If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?”
These early anti-slavery activists rejected the “otherworld” theology taught to enslaved Africans by their white captors, which sought to deflect attention away from their condition in “this world” with promises of a better afterlife.
Instead, they affirmed God’s intention for freedom and liberation in both this world and the next, identifying strongly with biblical stories of freedom, such as the exodus of the Hebrew community from Egyptian enslavement and Jesus’ proclamation to “set the oppressed free.”
Incorporating religion into the Black anti-slavery movement sowed the seeds for faith being central to the struggle for racial justice to come. As the church historian James Washingtonobserved, the “very disorientation of their slavery and the persistent impact of systemic racism and other forms of oppression provided the opportunity – indeed the necessity – of a new religious synthesis.”
At heart, a preacher
The synthesis continued into the 20th century, with religious civil rights leaders who clearly felt compelled to make the struggle for justice central part of the role of a spiritual leader.
“In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a 1965 article for Ebony Magazine.
Racial justice remains integral to Black Christian leadership in the 21st century. In an interview earlier this year, Rev. Barber said: “There is not some separation between Jesus and justice; to be Christian is to be concerned with what’s going on in the world.”
Recognizing the rich legacy of Black religious leadership in the struggle of racial justice in the United States in no way diminishes the role of historic and contemporary secular leadership. From W.E.B. DuBois to A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize 1963’s March on Washington, and up to the current day the civil rights movement has also benefited from those who would classify themselves as freethinkers or atheists.
For some people speaking up when they know they’re right, or when they see an injustice, is just part of who they are. They feel compelled to take action. Not me. I spent a big part of my younger years screaming inside about things that frustrated me at work, church, and even in my personal life, but the outrage never escaped the audience in my head. In real-time, I was just sitting there…silent…paralyzed with fear over whether I would be hurt professionally or personally if I faced the conflict head-on and said something out loud. I was well into my thirties before I realized how liberating it can be to use your voice while fighting for a cause bigger than yourself.
That’s why Kathy Khang’s latest book, Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up, resonates with me. Khang offers practical advice and forward-thinking leadership from a Christian perspective on how to find your own personal voice for the good of the community and sharing God’s Word — particularly when race, ethnicity, and gender are at play. But even for her, it took time to get to the place where she is now.
“As a Korean American woman, I really wrestled with whether or not it was appropriate to raise my voice, whether I had anything worth saying,” Khang says. “Maybe if I had something worth saying, would anyone listen? Would anyone care?”
Khang, a columnist for Sojourners magazine and a writer for Duke University’s Faith & Leadership, the online magazine of leadership education at Duke Divinity, talked with Urban Faith about her new book, the politics of race and evangelism, being a woman of color with something to say, and why many people don’t speak up.
You mentioned that finding your voice has been part of a 10-year process. Can you tell me more about what you were struggling with and how your faith helped you push through it to complete the book?
This wasn’t, you know, a 10-year process in my twenties. This is my late thirties, early forties, where I’ve already been a professional journalist. There aren’t a ton of examples of Korean-American, Asian-American women, women of color in safe circles writing books. There are more now, but definitely not when I was in my formative years. And those were not the authors I read to shape my faith, to shape my Christian worldview. Those books were all written by white men, by and large, and a lot of white women. And so, I just had to really work through why is it that I feel like I have nothing worth saying when clearly there are tons of people who have no problem figuring out that they have something to say. Having to walk through that with myself and with God. Spending time listening to God with the help of a spiritual director and some great Christian mentors, and supervisors who were encouraging me and saying, “You know, you do have something to say.”
If you could go back in time and talk to the 24-year-old you, what would you tell her about race?
I would say to her, “Keep doing what you are doing and learning vocationally.” So in my twenties, I was a newspaper reporter and I’d say ‘Don’t be afraid of talking with your editors and fighting for the story or fighting for the wording because it matters.’ I think there were a lot of times where I thought, ‘Well, this isn’t the fight I wanna fight.’ And there’s wisdom to that. But I think that there were other times where I was just so worried I would get fired. I would also tell that 20-something self that it’s important to care for yourself in order to care for your community. I learned that later — the idea of being a self-sacrificing Godly woman is communicated in various ways in different cultures and in different churches. I certainly felt it. I wish I had heard that more consistently in my twenties to encourage me, you know?
What is it that is holding people back from speaking up and being who God called them to be?
Fear. And some of that fear is rooted in a fear of a failure. For me, I’m a bit of a recovering perfectionist. I would encourage people to not only think about the cost of speaking up and raising your voice, but also the cost of continually remaining silent. What does that do? What does that say about what you say you believe in? What does that do to your soul and who God is encouraging you to become?
You’ve been outspoken about racism in the church, especially on social media. How we can come together when we see the world so differently?
You raise your voice mindful of the backlash. I don’t wanna be overly dramatic, but I also don’t want to ignore the fact that I know many, many people of color, myself included, and particularly women of color, who speak out against racism in the church and we get the most horrifying and disgusting responses. You get an email. You get a direct message. You get a tweet back at you. I will be very honest, I’m not sure on this side of heaven we will see a time where that gap is fully bridged. However, I think it is very important that the work is not left up to people of color to raise their voices. We need teachers, preachers, authors, artists to continue to speak into those spaces, to call that out and to present the various alternatives. What would this world look like? What would the church look like if we were able to bridge that divide? What will the world and the church look like if we do not? Because it can’t be left to people of color. We need our white allies and we need them not to be afraid of making mistakes and offending and screwing up.
Sometimes Alfred Wilson still has to take a moment to collect himself after he pulls open files at the law firm where he works and sees Heather Heyer’s handwriting.
“I get choked up and have to gather myself before I talk to the client,” said Wilson, who hired Heyer, the 32-year-old paralegal killed nearly a year ago in a car attack during a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The rally that left Heyer dead and dozens more injured proved to be a watershed moment, both for the racist, fringe “alt-right” movement, and for the city itself. In the year since, many residents like Wilson say the wounds haven’t healed. Others say the violence has laid bare divisions over deeper issues of race and economic inequality and what should be done to move forward.
“One of my hugest gripes with last year with the people of this town was that people, mostly white folks, kept saying, ‘This isn’t Charlottesville,'” said Brenda Brown-Grooms, a local pastor and activist. “I wonder what planet they live on. This is exactly who we are.”
A Charlottesville native, born in the segregated basement of the University of Virginia hospital, Brown-Grooms said white supremacy was present in Charlottesville long before the rally and is the “elephant in the room” the city now must deal with.
Activists have pushed leadersto address the city’s legacies of racism and slavery, its affordable housing crunch and the police department’s relationship with the black community, among other issues, since the Aug. 12 rally.
The event was one of the largest gatherings of white nationalists and far-right extremists in a decade. Many participants dressed as if they were headed to battle, shouted racist slurs and clashed violently with counterprotesters. Meanwhile, authorities largely stood by on the fringes of the action near a downtown park with a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that the city wanted to remove.
The crowd was eventually forced to disperse but a car that authorities say was driven by a man fascinated with Adolf Hitler later plowed into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters. The day’s death toll rose to three when a state police helicopter that had been monitoring the event and assisting with the governor’s motorcade crashed, killing two troopers.
In this Sept. 16, 2017, file photo, State Police keep a handful of Confederate protesters separated from counter-demonstrators in front of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. Pressure to take down America’s monuments honoring slain Confederate soldiers and the generals who led them didn’t start with Charlottesville. But the deadly violence that rocked the Virginia college town a year ago gave the issue an explosive momentum. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
Responding in part to calls for a closer look at stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately affect black residents, the city established a new Police Civilian Review Board. The city also has approved funds for affordable housing and workforce development.
Meanwhile, there’s been a churn in leadership. The city attorney took a new job, the city manager’s contract was not renewed, a spokeswoman quit and the police chief, 50 at the time, retired after less than two years on the job.
The five-person city council has two new faces, and the group picked a different mayor, Nikuyah Walker, a black woman who ran as an independent in the staunchly Democratic town and was previously one of the council’s strongest critics.
Walker has clashed publicly with other council members on multiple issues, such as hiring an interim city manager. She recently took to social media to criticize the candidate, the way he was selected and her fellow councilors’ behavior.
The council’s drama doesn’t seem to affect most residents, who “just go on with our lives and watch with quiet amusement,” said Charles “Buddy” Weber, an attorney and longtime resident involved in a lawsuit seeking to stop the city from removing the Lee monument. Weber emphasized that not everyone in Charlottesville agrees on the extent and nature of the city’s problems.
While the city’s been struggling to find its footing, some alt-right leaders are faltering. The rally violence proved a costly debacle for leading figures such as white nationalist Richard Spencer and others who are fighting lawsuits. Many in the movement have been booted from mainstream internet platforms. A few have dropped out altogether.
Only one organizer of last summer’s rally seems intent on publicly marking the anniversary. Jason Kessler, a Charlottesville resident and UVA graduate, sued the city after it denied him a permit for an anniversary event. Kessler recently abandoned his lawsuit, but he vowed to press ahead with plans for an Aug. 12 rally in Washington, D.C.
During an interview this summer, Kessler said he was still “coming to terms” with what happened last year and said he apologized to Heyer’s family.
But he struck a far more defiant tone when a city attorney questioned him last month. Kessler said during a deposition that he had no regrets or remorse about his role and takes no responsibility for the violence.
While Kessler’s plans for the anniversary weekend have shifted, many residents say they’re bracing for some sort of white nationalist presence. Officials and law enforcement authorities insist that whatever happens, they will be better prepared. An investigation by a former U.S. attorney found a lack of planning, poor communication and a passive response by law enforcement added to last year’s chaos.
Michael Rodi, owner of a downtown restaurant-nightclub, told city and law enforcement officials at a forum for the business community that “if we can make this thing fizzle, the rest of the world looks at us and goes, ‘Oh, you’re not Nazi Central.'”
Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, who’s spent much of the past year working with Wilson on a foundation named for her daughter, said she plans to place flowers Sunday at the site of the attack that claimed Heyer’s life. But the day should be about more than just Heyer, Bro said.
“I just would like people to focus on the anniversary, not on Heather, but on the issues that she died for — Black Lives Matter, overpolicing, affordable housing, for more truth and the telling of the history of Charlottesville — and to focus on where they need to go as a community,” Bro said.
— Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman in Silver Spring, Maryland, and AP photographer Steve Helber in Charlottesville contributed to this report. Rankin reported from Richmond and Charlottesville.
As I watched a diverse group of activists, beyond frustrated with gun violence in Chicago, shut down the Dan Ryan, one of the busiest expressways in the Chicago area, I felt a solidarity with their cause. Led by Father Pfleger of St. Sabina Church and Rev. Jesse Jackson on Saturday, July 7, thousands of activists from all areas of the city and the suburbs screamed “shut it down” right before they took over all four lanes of the expressway on the northbound lanes from 79th Street to 67th Street.
When I texted a friend of mine, who is very active in her South Side Chicago community, she was a lot less enthused about the event.
“What I don’t get is we’re primarily killing each other. How does marching on the highway reduce crime in our own community?”
I countered that it’s hard to ignore the problem when people practice civil disobedience. Then she responded, “Agreed, but it doesn’t influence or shape policy.”
Thousands descended on the Dan Ryan expressway in an anti-violence march organized by Father @MichaelPfleger of @stsabinachurch. After lengthy negotiations, police opened all inbound lanes to the mass demonstration calling for more public resources to be devoted to the S&W sides. pic.twitter.com/BBfAFMAhPx