The United Church of Christ, with a longstanding commitment to civil rights and racial justice, is getting involved in the Anniversary March next week in our nation's capital, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The UCC is extending an extravagant welcome to all members to gather as they are able in Washington, D.C., for the commemoration of the historic event and a commitment to continue to advocate for equal rights for all.
"Having been on staff with the UCC Washington office for 20 years, I can safely say I have been to a lot of marches, on all kinds of issues," said Sandy Sorensen, director of the UCC's office in D.C. "Some would argue, what is the point of marches anymore? And to some degree, I understand that sentiment – I don't think marches alone bring about change. But then again, I don't think any one thing we do does bring about change.
"What is important to me about marches and rallies and interfaith services and public witnesses is the act of actually putting my body somewhere specifically because something matters to me," Sorensen continued. "There is something about physically locating myself in a particular time and place with a particular community of people that connects me to the work of justice in a deeper way – taking me to a place beyond words, as I put one foot in front of the other."
Aug. 28 marks the bicentennial of the March on Washington, which was organized by a coalition of civil rights organizations and capped by a powerful and unforgettable message from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thousands of marchers gathered in Washington, D.C., to call for the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation, an end to racial segregation in public schools and racial discrimination in hiring, protection from police brutality, job creation, a minimum wage, and protection of the right to vote. The 1963 march was pivotal in the civil rights struggle, and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
For the UCC, the work continues. "Many have written about the persistence of racial disparities in our social institutions and structures in 2013, which impact the everyday lives of many people of color across generations," said the Rev. Elizabeth Lueng, the UCC minister for racial justice. "We see this in increasing inequities in job opportunities, voting rights, criminal justice systems and so many other areas of our common life."
Members of the denomination are planning to participate in a march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on Saturday, Aug. 24, an interfaith memorial service at the MLK Memorial on Wednesday, Aug. 28, followed by a ticketed event at 1 p.m. at the Lincoln Memorial, "Let Justice Ring."
The UCC Washington office is inviting all interested church folk to gather in the area around the Lincoln Memorial near the corner of 17th and Constitution Ave. at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24. (Follow the sidewalk along the edge of the World War II Memorial to the beginning of the Reflecting Pool. The UCC delegation will be in the grassy, hilly area just above the sidewalk at the start of the Reflecting Pool — the side closest to Constitution Ave. Look for large UCC banners.)
"Just as in 1963, it is a pivotal time in our country around key issues of civil rights for all, fair jobs and wages and an end to violence," Sorensen said.
Participation from UCC conferences and congregations is planned up and down the East Coast. The Florida Conference of the UCC is inviting members and friends to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by spending the week in D.C. to take in the commemorative celebrations.
"The renewal of the progressive church hinges upon each of us responding to God's call to be a bold and prophetic witness to the radical love of Jesus Christ for our hurting and broken world," the Rev. Sarah Lund said in her invitation to conference members to join in the historic trip to the nation's capital. Lund said she was inspired during the National Church Leadership Institute gathering in Atlanta, hosted by the UCC-related Center for Progressive Renewal, and its call to faith communities to organize for justice and peace.
Up north in Belfast, Maine, First United Church of Belfast-United Church of Christ is marking the occasion in community, with a rally and vigil on the front lawn of the congregation that is open to the public. The We Still Have a Dream Rally and Vigil on Wednesday will feature local musicians, a reading of King's "I Have a Dream" speech, speakers and a community chorus.
First United said the rally is to "celebrate where we've come in these past 50 years and to commit ourselves to continue to press forward in the fight for civil rights, racial harmony, and for justice, peace and freedom for all people."
The UCC's work for racial justice spans centuries. The church and its predecessor bodies have supported policies and structures that affirm the UCC's commitment to racial justice. The denomination was the first to ordain an African-American Minister, Lemuel Haynes, in 1785, and took a stand against slavery in the early 1700s. Learn more about the UCC's Racial Justice Ministry online.
How is your congregation or conference commemorating the March on Washington in the coming week? Share your answer in the comments section below.