The Church and the March on Washington: "The shock of relevance"

The fiftieth anniversary of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is an excellent excuse to look into the Commonweal archives. What did Commonweal contributors have to say about the march -- who went, what did they take away, and where did they hope it would lead?

The first to report was Francis E. Kearns, then an assistant professor at Georgetown, who published his account of the march (which he attended along with some other Georgetown folks) in the magazine's September 20, 1963 issue ("Marching for Justice"). For him, the march was a watershed event in the history of religious institutions' engagement with the struggle for civil rights:

Perhaps the most significant gain scored by the march, however, is that, more than any previous incident or demonstration in the field of racial justice, it led great numbers of religious institutions and church members to make an act of commitment. In the past few years it has been the church authorities who have made the proclamations and joined in the rallies, but on August 28th one could see large groups of marchers carrying the banners of Bronx Hebrew congregations or Washington churches. On the speakers platform one could see the familiar bishops, but what was new was the presence in the audience of Washington parish priests, Woodstock seminarians, and suburban Maryland parishioners.

What was significant too was the tone adopted in the speeches by religious spokesmen such as Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches, Mathew Ahmann, of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, of the American Jewish Congress. Here was not the grandiloquent self-congratulation often reserved for those occasions when the Church condescends to become involved in community affairs, but rather a frank admission of culpable indifference in the past and a promise of greater effort in the future.

Georgetown had a mixed record on racial justice, in Kearns's view, and had responded sluggishly to the civil rights movement. Still, he reported,

when called upon to support the march, the university community responded generously. The administration endorsed the participation of a Georgetown group and offered dormitory space and meals to out-of-town marchers. Moreover, though only thirty to forty marchers were expected from the campus, over 250 students, priests, and lay professors participated. One could sense that many other Catholics at the Lincoln Memorial were taking the first difficult steps toward a Christian stand on the race problem.

Kearns offers an encouraging account of episcopal leadership in D.C.:

The large scale participation of local Catholic groups in the march could be attributed largely to the influence of Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle of Washington, who pronounced the rally's invocation. As Chairman of the Washington Interreligious Committee on Race Relations, he had earlier appeared before a District Commissioners' hearing to call for strong regulations to end discrimination in housing; had called upon local churches to consider anti-discrimination clauses in church-related building contracts; had helped establish an apprentice training program for Negroes in the construction trades; and had encourged a program of exchange visits between Negro and white families.

Moreover, through pastoral letters, through instituting recitation of a special prayer for racial justice at all Sunday Masses, and through a variety of other methods, he had brought home to Washington Catholics their responsibilities in the civil rights movement. At the parish church I attend -- where sermons had in the past been concerned largely with the importance of the second collection, the dangers of Communism, or the deficiencies of Protestant theology, where the chief evidence of social interest had been a showing of the movie Operation Abolition -- the shock of relevance was overwhelming.

Kearns was uncertain how, and whether, the march would bear fruit, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 still an uncertain prospect:

Now the march has already passed out of the headlines and one of the most important questions concerning its influence remains unanswered -- what effect will it have on the mass of voters in bringing about support in Congress for a strong civil rights bill? Despite the great dignity of the march, despite its reaffirmation of the American tradition of peaceful assembly and petition, despite its re-emphasis of the moral ideas informing the civil rights movement, the march may have had very little effect on the nation's thinking. There is considerable evidence that the position of those unwilling to see the passage of civil rights legislation has so hardened that no peaceful demonstration would have moved them. Thus Southern Democrat Strom Thurmond and Republican Representative Joel Broyhill contented themselves on the evening after the march by pointing out the loss of business revenue to downtown Washington. Similarly, David Lawrence's syndicated column termed the march "a day of public disgrace -- a step backward in the evolution of the American system of government."

Moreover, a new rumor, which even made some of the local radio news broadcasts, has it that all of the New York costume shops were out of rented clerical garb on the day of the march and many of those dressed as priests or ministers were Communist conspirators.

Thurmond is not the only recently-active congressman mentioned in Kearns's account, which concludes:

That the racial equality revolution is still primarily a religious revolution was manifested when Archbishop O'Boyle was backed by other civil rights leaders in his insistence that certain inflammatory remarks be removed from the prepared text of a speech by John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Nevertheless, one wonders how long the religious ideals of the movement would be able to restrain violence should the nation fail to support effective civil rights legislation. During the past few months we have heard many cries of outrage, in the halls of Congress, in letters to the editor, in newspaper editorials, against what is termed the Supreme Court's weakening of "our religious heritage" through its school prayer decisions. It would indeed be more than ironic if the nation now failed to respond to the civil rights movement, the greatest religious crusade of the twentieth century.

Kearns had a chance to elaborate on that point when a Jesuit from Georgetown, the Rev. George H. Dunne, wrote to complain about the "oddly sour note" he detected in Kearns's account of the university's involvement in the March. ("Why the grudging remarks about Georgetown?") That letter was published in the November 1, 1963, issue, with Kearns's unchastened reply:

The chief charge Father Dunne brings against me is that I did not engage in lavish and unrestrained praise (with bells, trumpets, and banners) of the university's participation in the march. I plead guilty.

It seems to me that few religious institutions were entitled to such praise. Can we honestly say that the churches have exercised leadership in the struggle for racial justice? Did the churches really risk much in supporting this legally acceptable and internationally acclaimed rally? For Father Dunne and some few other heroic individuals who have devoted their lives to prodding Catholics into a Christian stand on the race issue, the march was a high point of achievement. For the rest of us it was a beginning -- a time, as was pointed out by various religious spokesmen at the rally, for the frank admission of past culpable indifference and for dedication to the future.

...The administration did endorse participation -- one week before the rally. Such endorsement did require courage and generosity and I want to applaud the administration here just as I did in my previous article. But what purpose would be served by exaggerating the role of Georgetown or other Catholic groups in the march? Has the stable, old rhetoric or piety and pretense with which we have comforted ourselves in the past ever helped us to be better Christians?

If I had used my article as a vehicle for congratulating churchmen while ignoring their racial sins and mine, I would have insulted the Negro's struggle for justice. Why should Christians be congratulated for starting to practice what they have so long preached? In participating in the racial struggle the white Christian does not make a gift of his aid to the Negro: he does that which it is necessary to do in order to go on regarding himself as a Christian.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

Also by this author
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