By / Aug 28

This week marks the 57th anniversary of the original March on Washington. This event, held on Aug. 28, 1963, helped to pass the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

Here are five facts you should know about the landmark civil rights protest march.

1. The event—officially known as the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”—was organized by the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement: A. Philip Randolph, Whitney M. Young, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, and John Lewis. Bayard Rustin was chief organizer of the march. 

Although the organizers disagreed about the purpose of the march, the group came together on a set of goals: passage of meaningful civil rights legislation; immediate elimination of school segregation; a program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed; a federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring; a $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide; withholding Federal funds from programs that tolerate discrimination; enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from states that disenfranchise citizens; a broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas; and authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when constitutional rights are violated.

2. The event took a staggering level of logistical effort. Organizers and officials planned for a crowd of about 150,000. But on the day of the march over 250,000 gathered together on the National Mall. To get to Washington, D.C., protesters took more than 2,000 buses, 21 chartered trains, 10 chartered airliners, and uncounted cars. All regularly scheduled planes, trains, and buses were also filled to capacity. On the National Mall, over 100 portable toilets were set up along with 16 first-aid stations. Eight 2,500-gallon water tanks were set up, which fed some 21 portable water fountains. Additionally, spouts were attached to fire hydrants so marchers would have access to drinking water. Volunteers prepared some 80,000 boxed lunches—sold for 50 cents each—consisting of a cheese sandwich, an apple, and a slice of cake.

3. Event organizer Bayard Rustin recruited 4,000 off-duty police officers and firemen to serve as event marshals, and coached them in the crowd control techniques he’d learned in India studying nonviolent political participation. The official law enforcement also included 5,000 police, National Guardsmen, and Army reservists. No marchers were arrested, though, and no incidents concerning marchers were reported.

4. Representatives from each of the sponsoring organizations addressed the crowd from the podium at the Lincoln Memorial. Speakers (dubbed “The Big Ten”) included The Big Six; three religious leaders (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish); and labor leader Walter Reuther. Along with the speakers, the marchers were entertained by celebrities, including Ossie Davis, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Jackie Robinson.

5. King was the last speaker because no one else wanted that slot, since all of the other speakers assumed the news media would leave by mid-afternoon. King agreed to take it and planned to speak for four minutes, but ended up speaking for 16 minutes. He improvised the most recognizable, memorable part of the speech for which he is most famous, according to his speechwriter and attorney Clarence B. Jones. Although King had spoken about a dream before two months earlier in Detroit, the “dream” was not in the text prepared by Jones. King initially followed the text Jones had written but gospel singer Mahalia Jackson yelled, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” King nodded to her, placed the text of his speech aside, and veered off-script, delivering extemporaneously what is referred to as the “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most famous orations in American history.

By / Jul 23

It is a strange time when you are able to reference Lord of the Rings and prophetic signs (a symbolic demonstration meant to release the power of God in the Word of Faith tradition) in the same sentence. But such are the times in which we live. Recently, a clip from a church service began to circulate online in which members of the church performed a prophetic sign that was said to bar racism from the church (You can watch the full section here starting at 2:05:00). These types of signs are common in charismatic movements. For example, Kenneth Copeland performed a similar act when he declared in April that COVID-19 would soon end

However, what was unique about this event was that it involved not the words of Scripture or a sign of the cross, but a quote from Gandalf the Gray, the wizard from Tolkien’s trilogy, and a replica of his staff. In a reenactment of the infamous scene where he fights off a fire demon, the church leaders declared that the spirit of racism “shall not pass.” 

A few caveats

First, this is not the place to get into a discussion of apostolic authority, the spiritual gifts that are most often associated with the movement, and the differences between evangelicals and the charismatic movement. There are historical and theological differences for separating them, as scholars such as Grant Wacker and Thomas Kidd have noted, but that is not the point here. Also, it should be noted that Pentecostalism and its offshoots have traditionally been more racially integrated than most traditions within American Christianity (The moment at the church in this article involved leadership who were African American, Korean, and Caucasian). 

The leaders correctly affirm that combatting racism is an act of spiritual warfare against demonic forces. They are correct to call out this form of satanic worship of the flesh. But there is also a need to recognize that it is not through movie quotes, but through the power of Scripture and the Holy Spirit that we combat this spiritual darkness.

The power of a word

To return to the event, where church members gathered onstage to dramatically portray the scene from Lord of the Rings, let us consider what this means. What took place there hinges on their collective declaration and the sealing of the prophetic sign. And as Christians, we recognize the power of a word. James tells Christians that they should control their tongues (3:1-12), and the Proverbs tell us that life and death are in the tongue (18:21). But are the words of a movie, inspiring as the scene is, sufficient to drive out racism—or any sin—from the church? As Christians, do we not have a better word to offer than a declaration that “You shall not pass!”?

Sadly, the white American church has frequently offered no word better than that. And in the past our words have in many instances not stopped racism but actively supported it. While there were many who fought and worked against the culture around them, all too often it was not the unity of a multiethnic kingdom that guided us but the cultural norms of prejudice and superiority.  For this, only a word of lament and repentance is the appropriate response. 

But there is more to say. The word that we offer to the world is not a declaration alone, but a person, the Word made flesh (John 1:14). And this God-man did not just destroy the wall between God and man, but he also destroyed the wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14). The moment of the Incarnation, when God took on flesh and entered the world, gives hope and shape to the command from James that faith must be evidenced in works. For God was not content to merely declare that all nations would be blessed through Abraham, but he took on flesh and made true the promise (Gen. 22:18; John 1:14). 

The promises of Scripture find life and form in the actions of Christ and the church. So we have a better promise to declare to the world than shouting from a stage that racism will not pass. We have a promise, evidenced in the life of a Middle Eastern Jewish man who befriended Roman centurions and Jewish rabbis, fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots, that the kingdom of God is not limited to one ethnicity, and that God will be glorified by those of every skin color and language. 

Rather than looking to a vision of a wizard facing down a fire demon, we look to the vision given to an apostle on a Roman island: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes” (Rev. 7:9). Rather than the declaration from a character in a book that “You shall not pass!” we have the cry from the Savior that “It is finished” (John 19:30). And more than a fictional monster defeated only within the confines of a novel, we know that the great serpent has been crushed and defeated in reality (Gen. 3:15; Rev. 20:10). 

A time such as this

The fight against racism is a fight against demonic forces and an act of spiritual warfare. In this way, it is fitting to compare it to Gandalf’s fight against the monstrosity in Tolkien’s novel. But the act of war against racism is not something that will end because of simple words or a reenacting of a moving scene. It will end because the people of God, empowered by the Spirit and driven by the Word, recognize the truth of their own story and work to make “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). It will happen when the unity between ethnicities in the church is a sign—and a better sign than anything drawn from fiction—of the future kingdom of God. It will happen when all of us repent of the way that we have overlooked injustice against our neighbor and seek to make it right. 

In one conversation between Gandalf and Frodo, Frodo says that he wishes the calamity would not have come during his lifetime. Gandalf responds that all have the same desire, “But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Even today, the American church is offered that opportunity to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God as we serve all our neighbors and seek their welfare (Micah 6:8)—not by our own might or power, but by the work of the Spirit through the Word (Zech. 4:6). 

By / Jun 23

All at once, our collective hearts were broken. We watched as his last breath left his body. These days, my tears are always right there, ready to be unleashed. Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and then George Floyd. 2020 has us reeling. Resonating with so many around the world, we’re connected by an undeniable ache. Grappling as a culture with the fallout of the sin of racism, we’re being forced to recognize the countless indignities that have always been inconsistent with God’s design for humanity. Loss, weeping, mourning, agonizing, demonstrations, passion, anger, unrest—this newly emerging landscape is almost unrecognizable. We must accept that who we are as a society has already been changed. 

Acknowledging the pain of the generations before us—abused, dismissed, and denied justice—we can’t forget that they labored for us. Despite their hard-fought movement toward “liberty and justice for all,” they’ve had to witness that effort hindered in its progress. Their requests weren’t idealistic, and MLK’s dream wasn’t silly, because they reflect God’s vision taken from his Word. So then, we ask, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” because today, the losses appear insurmountable. 

We hear God’s calls for us to comfort, but we choose to cross-examine instead. Christian infighting and finger-pointing bombards our timelines while calls for justice go unheeded. Unbelievers watch and wait for our response. How do we as Christians choose the gospel above all while doing the hard work of consoling and serving those who are hurting, those who we may not even agree with? Why is unity so hard? How do I, as an African-American woman and a mother to a young man in the South, inoculate myself against the bitterness, fear, and rage all around me? Where do I place my hurt? 

The psalmist wrote, “Where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to slip; your Protector will not slumber” (Psa.121:1a–3). Returning to these words many times through the years, I again find comfort for today and renewed hope for tomorrow. God is awake. He is active. With his omniscient view from his throne, he sees all. And with his intimate knowledge of our hearts, he has a purpose for all. God didn’t do this, but he can most certainly redeem it. 

Glimmers of hope 

Amidst these hard months, we’re watching positive shifts take place. Good things are happening, gifting us with glimmers of hope that peek from the shadows. Within my own processing, the sting has been tempered by this hope. For so many of us, our pain has been a catalyst offering the opportunity to look past ourselves and to recognize others and their suffering. Others have experienced a fresh boldness, compelling them to donate their resources and influence to affect necessary change. Arising from the tragedy created by racism, many are experiencing an unprecedented connectedness to others. The gospel is being preached, and scales are falling from once-blinded eyes. Hearts are being massaged, and ears have been primed to hear.

Hope has been the currency that has sustained me in this heavy-hearted season. This currency has investment value for my community, my work, my home, and my soul. Hope can bring healing and resilience to broken situations, and it has pressed me to pursue peace even as we pursue justice. I’ve learned there’s no peace without a storm, no victory without a battle. Pain has a way of guiding believers right into the center of God’s purposes for us. Within God’s plans, pain has worked as a refining fire that he’s used to reshape me. Using our struggles, often he produces in us passions with which to pursue him while blessing others. 

What we’ve been seeing is the hand of God moving despite the backdrop of evil and brokenness. I’m having conversations with many who’ve never had to confront the realities of the harsh systems their black and brown brothers and sisters have had to endure. Hearing from those around me, we’re using this moment in history to educate and then walk through beautiful discipleship conversations in our homes and with our families. Leaders are being forced to acknowledge their ignorance, indifference, and even complicity. This generation of future leaders, including my own, are being enlisted, identifying injustice, and are empowered to use their voices, minds, and communities to broker change. 

More work must be done. Inspired by Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Mamie Till, Harriet Tubman, and others, I aim to be a person of peace, a part of the solution. I’m compelled by Christ to be a bridge-builder while the soil is tender, seeking to “act justly, love faithfulness, and walk humbly” with him as an active calling. We’re still broken, but God doesn’t slumber. And so, we don’t lose heart.

Growing up in the African-American church has steeped me in this rich theology. Our songs so often challenge the hurting to endure weariness, placing their hope and trust in God. Written as a poem, these words from “Lift Ev’ry Voice” became an anthem. Not one of war, but of struggle. Not of division, but of unity. Not solely of lament, but also of inspiring hope. 

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land. 

By / Apr 3

Russell Moore moderates a panel discussion with Mika Edmonson, Carl Ellis, Charlie Dates, and Trillia Newbell on the complex aspects of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the MLK50 Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. 

By / Apr 3

Karen Ellis delivers a keynote address on the Great Commission and racial unity at the MLK50 Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. 

By / Apr 3

John Piper delivers a keynote address on the glory of God and racial unity at the MLK50 Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. 

By / Apr 3

Jackie Hill-Perry delivers a short talk on equipping the next generation to embrace Gospel diversity at the MLK50 Conference in Memphis, Tennessee. 

By / Apr 3
By / Feb 5

The 2015 ERLC Leadership Summit will address "The Gospel and Racial Reconciliation" to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families, and their churches. This event will be held in Nashville on March 26-27, 2015.