Participants from several United Church of Christ congregations gathered in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 24, joining a throng of tens of thousands to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Their reasons for being part of the historic event, the 'National Action to Realize the Dream,' were varied, but the common theme that drew the UCC delegates to make the trip to the nation's capital: a renewed call to justice.
For one life-long UCC member, Dollie Burwell of Oak Level UCC in Manson, N.C., it was a chance to bring her 92-year-old godmother to Washington to call for equality in voting rights. Burwell said her godmother was ready to be arrested in an act of civil disobedience during a Moral Mondays protest in Raleigh, because her right to vote could be jeopardized with new voter ID laws. Moral Mondays, acts of civil disobedience from North Carolinians in response to proposed policies that have not reflected the public interest, have been held for 17 weeks and counting around that state.
"With the laws of nature, she may not be around for another anniversary and she wanted to experience the March on Washington anniversary and see the King Memorial," Burwell said. "She told me, 'I was trying to go to my grave without having to fight again for my right to vote.' While I know we have made a lot of progress [since 1963], some of the issues are similar. Unemployment, discrimination and voting rights [issues] still exist."
The rally started at the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a march along Independence Ave., which passed the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and ended at the Washington Monument. Signs in the crowd reflected the expanded reach and vision of the anniversary march to include issues of gun violence, immigration reform, LGBT rights, and justice for women as well as many of the same issues that galvanized marchers in 1963 — racial profiling, racially-motivated violence, economic justice and voting rights.
"I really was moved by what happened this weekend," said Burwell. "I was not there in 1963. I did participate in the 20th anniversary. But North Carolina has devastated a lot of people in the rollbacks there on voting rights. It is sad, and it is true. The new laws have been the most repressive and regressive voting rights laws in this country."
Sandy Sorensen, who directs the UCC office in Washington and attended Saturday's events, said she has no doubt that the march and rally was "much more than a sentimental remembrance and commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington."
"Indeed, in many ways, the rally and march reflected the continuing growth of the progressive movement for equality and justice, particularly in its expansiveness and groundedness in the understanding of the intersections of race, gender, socioeconomic status and sexuality," Sorensen said. "There was a shared passion and urgency about the issues that were raised in 1963 and continue to present challenges to advocates for change in this day. And it was also clear to me that the faith community continues to play no less than a crucial role in the work of advocacy for equality and justice."
As in 1963, the crowd lined both sides of the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Among the speakers were Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington and the freedom rides of the early 1960s, Attorney General Eric Holder, Martin Luther King, Jr. III, Bernice King and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others.
Katelyn Macrae, a member of Hope UCC in Alexandria, Va., went on Saturday looking to meet with other delegates from the UCC. For Macrae, it was important to be with other people united by the call to justice advocacy. She said the seed for her passion for justice work was planted when she was a seminary student, and during a Justice LED training seminar she attended two years ago.
"It was great to see all kinds of people coming together for different causes," Macrae said. "You saw everything from LGBTQ rights, to jobs to racial justice and signs for Trayvon Martin – it was a broad-based justice message. That was powerful and palpable."
"It's 50 years later, and we're still marching for jobs and freedom and racial justice and an end to violence," Macrae added. "Those issues are still living now. The times have changed, but the issues are there – it's a renewed call to continue with justice work, but a galvanizing moment for remembering the past and looking forward to the future with what is possible."
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.