A Reflection on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  There was an enormous amount of discussion about where we are as a nation, a people, and even as a church.  As I was reading through all of the thought provoking articles, I found a very interesting post from a friend of mine, Reverend Jerrod Lowry.   So, I asked him if he would be kind enough to share his  perspective here on the SoMa blog.   We would love to hear your thoughts and reflections as well. 

                A Reflection on  the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

By: Reverend Jerrod Lowry

My brothers and sisters, I am elated that this week we celebrate a monumental, a pivotal, and dare I say sacred moment in the life of this nation and maybe even the world. This week we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for jobs and freedom. This March is highlighted by and remembered fondly by what many call the “I Have a Dream Speech”. Now while I celebrate this moment in history and I give thanks that so many consider this an event worth celebrating after 50 years, I have serious reservations and take umbrage about what we seem to really honor and celebrate regarding the March on Washington.  I am bothered by the way we refer to Martin Luther King Jr (MLK for short) and his “I Have a Dream Speech”. I think if we continue to celebrate MLK and the speech then we miss important factors that are worthy of celebrating and neglect the responsibilities we still have 50 yrs later.

First, by just referring to MLK or Martin Luther King Jr we lose sight that he was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rev. King was an ordained minister, a clergy person, one who was called by God, one who believed in the power of the Word of God, one who believed in the power of the risen Christ. Reverend King was responding to that power and his call to ministry as he delivered those magnificent words on that day.  We must remember that he was not just a good man and a good speaker. He was a pastor, a Christian, and should be referred to as The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on that day and spoke eloquently about how the Word of God, the promises of God, and the God given gifts of people inspired his hopes and his vision of the future. It is a pastor, and a ministry that we celebrate. Moreover, I fear that if we fail to acknowledge his authority as one called by God and ordained by the church then we may also fail to see such a stand as the work and responsibility of all believers.

Additionally I am troubled that our recollection of Rev. King’s words that day is fondly referred to as “The I Have A Dream Speech”. This was more than a speech. This was a sermon. It is not just a sermon because the person delivering it was an ordained minister. This was a sermon because it was delivered in response to what Rev. King understood the Word of God to say and declare. He was responding to the Word of God. Even though he did not “call the text” (begin by reading scripture) King was interpreting the Word of God and declaring how the Word should be applied in the context of the day. King’s sermon that day was delivered with Bible in one hand and newspaper in the other. He stood and delivered a sermon with the Word of God on his heart and the struggle of people on his mind. He stood on the high steps of the Lincoln monument, and yet I believe his placement on a pinnacle of history comes because he delivered a powerful sermon with one foot upon the Biblical traditions of prophets like Jeremiah, and Amos, and Isaiah; and with the other firmly planted upon the broad shoulders of ancestors who endured the African Diaspora. Fifty years ago, Dr. King delivered not a speech but a sermon as he leaned upon the Word of God for the divine authority to speak truth to power and lift high that holy image of hope. This is a sermon and “My God” what a sermon it is!

Finally, we must remember Dr. King’s sermon delivered that day was called “A Canceled Check”. This is important because he came to the podium to remind the world of this promissory note called the American Dream- A promise of opportunity, equality, and justice, a promise that had not been fulfilled. Dr. King called upon the people to demand the check be cashed. Yet, as we commemorate this historic moment, we cannot be caught simply listening over and over to the final portion of the “I Have a Dream Speech and reducing it to nothing more than a sweet and pleasant picture of America where people are recognized for their character, where children can walk together and play on the same playgrounds.  In doing so, then the focus of the day is only to dream dreams instead of seeing the dreams fulfilled. The sermon is misconstrued as a speech about dreams and not as a call to action as the sermon was intended. If we focus on a speech about a dream then we pacify ourselves and may begin to think that this dream will just one day become a reality. If we focus on a speech about a dream then we may inadvertently limit our responsibility to simply hoping that one-day the polishers of glass ceilings and the defenders of walls built to segregate and separate will simply wake up and realize the errors of their ways and the destruction that defending their privilege imposes on others.  Frederick Douglass said,

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong, which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

If we fail to hear, and celebrate, and seek inspiration from the entirety of Rev. King’s “A Canceled Check Sermon”, then I fear we will silence the voice and abdicate the true power of the growing minority. We will fail to seek justice. And we will fail to demand justice in hopes that justice will just show up. 

Friends let us remember there is no emancipation without a Sojourner Truth leading and pushing slaves to freedom. Women may not have the right to vote without the Suffrage movement and the passionate work of women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, and Lucretia Mott. Where would we be if men and women in the American colonies just dreamt of liberty and never stood up to demand it? Rev King’s message may be lost or at best corrupted if we focus on the rhetoric of an “I Have a Dream Speech”. Instead, let us celebrate a prophet to the nation who reminds us that the Word of God is also upon our lips not to dream but to “pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow, build, and plant”.

 Reverend Lowry is a teaching elder serving the Community Of Grace Presbyterian Church in Sandy, Utah.