Reflections on the 2013 March on Washington

3 Sep

Reflections on the 2013 March on Washington
by First Unitarian Church 2013 MoW Participants
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on September 1, 2013

Gathering Music “Hush”

Opening Words  

We gather this morning in the struggle to find and make worth and meaning.

We stand in the shadow of history, of a national event that our faith and our country have taken as a foundational moment in our history but which, at the time, was looked at by many with contempt.

We stand, looking backwards, reinterpreting the Dream that a wise man shared, a Dream that our country would make good on its promise of freedom and justice for all. A dream that has yet to be realized, no matter how much esteem in which we hold it.

We stand, looking ahead, wondering if the progress made will continue or if it has been stymied. Wondering if the new legislative and economic systems will disenfranchise and oppress or will empower and liberate.

We stand, at this very moment, listening to the stories around us, listening to that which calls our names and calls us to be a part of the force for love, for good, for justice.

Hush. Listen. Let us worship.

Opening Hymn “We Shall Not Be Moved”

Reflection: The Rev. Dawn Cooley 

Fifty years ago, over 100,000 people gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC to march for jobs and freedom. Over the past week, there have been many events celebrating this momentous occasion. Last weekend, 10 First U’rs boarded busses for the long trip to DC to join with the National Action to Realize the Dream rally and march. It was a trip like no other.

One of the highlights of the weekend, for me, were the speakers. It was encouraging to hear Attorney General Eric Holder say that he will work to ensure that “every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote” and to “ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law” with a goal that “every action we take reflects our values and that which is best about us.”

I was inspired, too, by Medgar Ever’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams. She spoke about how she had been unable to attend the march in 1963 because her husband had just been assassinated in their front yard a few weeks earlier. Her inability to attend, she said, was a wound that had not healed after all these years – not until President Obama asked her to do the invocation at his inauguration earlier this year. She was the first woman and the first lay person to do so.

But my favorite speaker was Rep. John Lewis. He had been the youngest speaker in 1963. His story shows how far we have come: to go from being overrun as he tried to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery on Bloody Sunday in 1965, to being a Congress person from Georgia since 1987. Last week, in his speech, he shared a liberal theology, when he said:  “Too many of us still believe our differences define us instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation.”

And he shared an enlightened, progressive view of the necessity of justice for everyone when he said:

“The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop and frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights…So it doesn’t matter whether they’re black or white, Latino, Asian- American or Native American, whether we or gay or straight — we are one people, we are one family, we are all living in the same house — not just the American house, but the the world house.”

Indeed, it was inspiring. Let’s hear now from some of the other participants and what some of their favorite moments were.

Reflection: Laurie 

While slow to decide on this trip and with numerous practical reasons for NOT going, something kept tugging at me and finally I knew I HAD to go. The opportunity to share this historical experience with my daughter and granddaughter added to the significance. I was 15 and living overseas on an Air Force base when the first March on Washington took place.

Some old friends had expressed concern for our safety while participating in this rally and march. They were envisioning a protest while I envisioned a show of support–taking a stand for those who had marched before and for all that we still hoped to accomplish. Before the trip I had been experiencing a lot of discouragement about our political state but from the moment I began joining others assembling on the Mall, I became infused with a sense of love and harmony and HOPE. I loved the fact that thousands of us, black and white, male and female, young and old mingled and conversed with love and respect.

Inspired by this march, I plan to find positive ways to share my hope and enthusiasm with others.

Reflection: Nancy 

I have regretted not being part of the March on Washington in 1963 all my adult life. I was 16 years old, entering my senior year in high school; and it never occurred to me to even try to join it. While my consciousness was being raised about horrors of segregation, I still didn’t understand how the civil rights struggle affected me.

As I grew up, I learned to appreciate the impact of that event. When I read the announcement about going to this March in the Sunday bulletin, I recognized a second chance when I saw it and didn’t let it pass me by again.

After the end of official march, we had free time before we met our bus for the return trip. Kris Philipps and I ended up sitting outside at a tavern. Our t-shirts attracted the attention of a young woman who we soon realized was a troubled woman searching for some peace and stability in her life. She wanted to know what the saying on our shirts meant and what do UU’s believe. And so, we did some evangelizing right there and encouraged her to check out All Souls Church in DC.

On our way back to the bus, another young woman approached us because she was intrigued by the message on our shirts. Like the first woman, she began talking about her job and family. There was something about our shirts that made us so accessible. People felt comfortable approaching us, and these encounters happened all day. I really believe that those shirts drew us into the spirit of the march because the message of love creates connections everywhere; and we were marching to witness for brother and sisterhood of all of us.

Reflection: Evelyn 

I really liked the sense of community at the March. It was really community-ish.  I think my favorite part, or one of them, was when a woman named Grandma Betty came up to us when she saw a bunch of “love” shirts and had us sign her shirt for her grandson who couldn’t be there because he had to work. She definitely opened up to us and it was definitely different becuase it is not every day that a woman who doesn’t know you comes up to you and asks you to sign her shirt and then tells you a lot about her. It was like “Wow!” Before she left, I have her a big hug. To my surprise she hugged me back.  Then, after the march, there was a woman with a “Free Hugs” sign. She got a hug from me, too. Obviously, I had to hug her becuase she had pink hair.  I normally don’t like hugging people but I kind of wish I could have hugged everyone there.

Reflection: Linette & Jay 

Linette: I had a list of reasons as long as my arm why I couldn’t possibly go to the March. I am just too busy. But when Rev. Dawn said SHE was making the time to go gave me pause. It started to become possible in my mind. After a conversation with Jay, it started to sound possible for us both to go.

Jay: We could make it work. It was important. Before we knew it, we were boarding busses from Louisville with more than 80 other people on an inspiring journey. Marching and talking with people on the Mall was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.

Linette: All along the way, the love was palpable.It reminded me of this poem by Reinhold Neibuhr:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;
therefore, we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history;
therefore, we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore we are saved by love.
~~From The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr

Jay: We are indeed saved by love. We feel incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to experience that love on such a grand scale, and we are so very pleased to have been there with a group from First U.

Linette: Now, when I reflect on the experience, I realize that my initial reluctance to go on the trip, the long list of reasons why I couldn’t possibly do it, reflects my personal inertia. I haven’t been active in social justice causes in the community since our son was born. I had reasoned that I was just too busy. But the March has inspired me to pause and reconsider. Now, I will be seeking out new ways to live my convictions, and I would love to partner with some of you all on that journey!

Reflection: Kris 

The most memorable moment for me was meeting the 3 women from NJ, one of them was from the 1.7 sq mile town where I spent my junior and senior high school years. Her daughter is a sophomore at the high school, where I graduated in 1967.

Back then, I didn’t know there was such a thing as Unitarian. My parents didn’t approve of my college friends: those thinking, social justice hippies. Then my family moved to Louisville in ’69.

After the march, Nancy & I went to get a cool drink, and got into an inspiring discussion with a woman at another table.
When I talk about my thoughts and attitudes about life with other people, it helps me figure out what it is I think about things. This conversation reminded me of who I am.

Please open your hymnals to #457 and join me in reading my favorite poem, by Unitarian minister, the Rev. Edward Everett Hale:

I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

Reflection: Calvin 

Before going to the March on Washington, I had been thinking intensely about what it means to take action and to live an active life. Much of this has to do with turning 20 just two weeks before the trip and the opportunities of hope and possibility that I have for my adult life. Looking back at my teenage years spent at this church, I believe that I certainly achieved tools not only to live a full, meaningful life of my own, but also to facilitate change for a better world.

At the march, I was inspired by the message of the civil rights activist, Myrlie Evers-Williams, to stand firm in the face of injustice, which is an endeavor that must be taken by the youth of today. This demonstration offered a new spark of hope for me, that Martin Luther King’s dream for the unity of humankind can and will be realized.

I am well aware that I cannot do it alone. Indeed, knowing that some generous soul (probably from our church) had paid for me to go, has deepened my conviction that we must work together for peace. To this person, I say thank you and please know that your donation will not be in vain, as I have gained the inspiration to act.

Reflection: Beverly 

I went to the Washington March with other members of the NAACP. My reasons forgoing were that I had missed the one in 1963, although I was old enough and teaching at Shawnee Jr. High School, in West Louisville. Last week, I went in honor of all those who went before and to support those who fought and continue to fight for justice in this country.

On this trip, someone asked me if I thought the trip would change me. I didn’t really think it would since I’ve been involved in civil rights a long time. But it did. The speakers at the rally stressed our responsibility to secure needed services and quality education for low-income children. I felt like they were speaking directly to me because recently, the JCPS School Board failed to raise the property tax adequately to fund programs for disadvantaged children. I’ve known we should be questioning that decision, but I hadn’t done anything.

Rev. Al Sharpton had us chant, “Celebrate”, which we were doing, and then “agitate.” He and others fired me up to return to agitating for adequate education funding for the neediest children in Louisville. I needed to be on that trip.

Reflection: Jozi 

Of course I knew about the “I Have a Dream” speech – or at least that little piece we have all heard often – but it wasn’t real. And then *I* was on the bus and *I* was hearing people’s stories and *I* was standing with thousands of people I don’t know, just as people did fifty years ago. I felt the energy and the certainty that we HAVE to grow equality and justice for everyone. I stood with people who were in that spot in 1963 and with people who weren’t even thought of in 1963, and all of us were together because we believe in the same cause. That speech and the determination it represents still inspires.

What matters most about that speech and about this anniversary is not that it caused a bunch of really different people to go to Washington, but that it can cause all of us to come back home and take action for real change. I loved being there and feeling that energy and excitement, but if I don’t step up now and do something, then it was just a long bus trip and a big crowd of people on a sunny day.

Before this weekend, it was a great speech. But now *I* have a dream, too, and I’m ready to get to work.

Call to Action: The Rev. Dawn Cooley 

Thank you, all of you, for participating and for sharing your stories this morning. It was, indeed, an inspiring experience. One that gives us hope, that renews our dreams of the beloved community. But if all we did was march and then come home and go about our daily lives, in our separate worlds and neighborhoods, in our separate schools and jobs and struggles, then this experience becomes not transformative, but only a great memory.

Instead, we who went are inspired to act. To get involved. To work to be part of the solution instead of, even by inertia or passivity, being part of the problem. How can we do that? And how can those of you who were not there, but who wish to work to create the beloved community jumpstart your work for justice? I want to end with 6 easy ways that any of us can act for justice, whether you went on the march in 1963, 2013, or not at all.

1. I encourage us all to engage in the soul searching that President Obama asked us all to do in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict. While the verdict may have been legal, do you think justice was served? If you do not understand why so many in the black community were upset, start a conversation with someone who does understand. Look at how dangerous, unfairly applied, and hypocritical “Stand your ground” laws really are.

2. If you are unfamiliar with them, educate yourself about the concerns of the local black community. An easy way to do so here in town is to listen to AM 1350 on Saturdays, when it is all talk-shows. Particularly listen to the 3:30 show presented by the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. And pickup a copy of the Louisville Defender, a newspaper by and for the local black community.

3. At lunch today, have a conversation about what it means that this congregation is located in a zip code that is 66% African-American. And what does it mean that this is one of the poorest urban zip codes in the country? And how might that affect our mission? Rather than simply accepting that old adage that Sunday 11am is the most segregated hour in the United States, start a conversation about why there are not more people of color, or more neighborhood people, at this church. If you think that we just would not appeal to such a population, go back to number 1 and engage in some of soul-searching that President Obama encourages – because, as we saw in response to our “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts, our message is one that has great appeal to someone looking for a place where love is practiced and where we focus on salvation in this lifetime.

4. Get some friends together to go on the Anne Braden Institute’s Civil Rights Driving Tour of Louisville, and then go on the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center Environmental Justice Tour. Come back after those and talk about why there is so much overlap between the two tours. It truly is astounding. As Robert Bullard points out in POVERTY, POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM:

It has been difficult for millions of Americans in segregated neighborhoods to say “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) if they do not have a backyard…Homeowners are the strongest advocates of the NIMBY positions taken against…the construction of garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, sewer treatment plants, recycling centers, prisons, drug treatment units, and public housing projects. Generally, white communities have greater access than people of color communities when it comes to influencing land use and environmental decision making.

5. In Kentucky, in the next legislative session in January, work hard for the restoration of the right to vote for convicted felons who have completed their sentences. The KY ACLU says “Kentucky is one of only two states in the country that permanently disenfranchises all individuals with felony convictions, barring over 180,000 individuals from voting—two-thirds of whom have fully served their sentence….The rate of disenfranchisement among African-American’s in Kentucky is the nation’s second highest. One in four African-American adults is barred from voting, leaving many communities with severely limited political power.” Work to overcome the new jim crow that is created by the mass incarceration of African-American people by working to restore voting rights.

6. If people perceive you to be white, use your white privilege in a positive way. Start with paying attention and seeing the benefits you get: at the grocery store, when you are pulled over by the police, at the doctor’s office, in a department store. I saw a powerful video clip last week about how a woman who looked white had no questions asked when she went to write a check at a grocery store she was visiting, but right behind her a black woman who had been patronizing the store for years was stopped, her id was checked, and her name was looked up on the “bad check” list. It wasn’t on there. The black woman was humiliated. But the white-looking woman used her privilege to go back and ask “Why are you doing this?” She challenged the status quo. Pay attention and use your privilege in positive ways.

So there you have it. Six easy things that we can do to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice, to work to create the beloved community with peace and justice for all. And there are hundreds more. We cannot be complacent. We must be on our way.

I’m on my way – are you on your way?

Closing Hymn “I’m on my way”

Closing Words 

As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

This is as true today as it was 50 years ago. Let us never give up, never lose hope, until the beloved community is more than just a dream and is instead, the lived reality of all.

2 Responses to “Reflections on the 2013 March on Washington”

  1. Marti McDaniel September 3, 2013 at 5:20 pm #

    I am so glad to have a chance to read this . Thank you for putting it on line.

    • Gail Helinger October 14, 2013 at 9:03 am #

      BEAUTIFUL!!!!!!!! I appreciate this immensely and am so happy to have read the other participants’ recollections, as well, and I am sure that we will all work to the best of our abilities to bring forth the changes to come! LOVE&PEACEinRevolutionarySolidarity, Gail

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