Religious Leaders and the March on Washington

Church People and the March on Washington

What motivated the white religious leaders to take up the call of freedom and join in the August march on Washington for freedom and jobs? This event itself was the result of a union between leaders of a wide variety of groups, not least of all were the leaders of various religious factions, and individual members of various religious communities, such as the Catholics who were fueled by a desire to be in the march, and thus caused the Catholic Church Lay Leaders (Raymond Hilliard and Matthew Ahmann of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, acting as Chairman and executive director respectively) to support the rights of clergymen and women to march with the protestors[1]. The religious leaders who helped both support and influence the March on Washington need to be discussed in order to truly understand the March on Washington. In order to truly consider the influence of the religious leaders within the movement, it is important to consider Malcolm X’s stance on the issue, which is that the moment the white religious liberals, “the same clique that put Kennedy in power”[2], joined in, the formally militant movement began to lose its power, going from being powerful to being weak. The purpose of analyzing the religious leaders is to determine if Malcolm X had a point in his accusations that the participation of and endorsement by white religious groups and leaders had a detrimental effect on the power and radicalism of the movement. Malcolm X was right about the influence of white religious leaders lessening the radicalism of the march, and the reasoning behind this was due to the influence of the Catholic leaders, Joachim Prinz’s speech having a subversive element indicative of redirecting the focus of the march from civil rights to encourage white participation, efforts by media to discredit the protest until religious leaders joined in, and religious people participating in marches in the months directly following the original march as well to undermine the uniqueness of the march itself, and the notion by the average church goer that the nonviolent movement was only good as long as it retained its religious background.

How might the influence of white religious leaders weakened the radicalism of the march itself? Well an article published by The New York Times in 1963 stated that Roman Catholic lay leaders had no problem with the Roman Catholic priests and nuns who wanted to participate, participating in the march, however they did express wishes that the march itself not go to Capitol Hill. This article is also important because it hints at the reasoning behind why the Catholic Church might support integration, due to the article mentioning that 700,000 African Catholics lived throughout the United States. The article also mentions that among other clergymen there was 7 Catholic priests involved in an attempt to integrate an all-white amusement park in Baltimore a week prior to the publication of the article (this park was the Gwynn Oak Park). This begins to instill the idea that white participation in the march comes at a cost, and that cost is that the radicalism which inspired the march and other similar acts, begins to bleed out. The idea that the Catholic leaders wanted to steer the direction of the march, both literally and figuratively, is one which is acknowledged in modern academia, but it’s also one that has at least a bit of evidence when Catholic leaders themselves have literally made suggestions or implored the leaders of the march to act in a particular way. Malcolm X’s frustration seems deserved when Catholic leaders make the mistake of implying that they object to a certain level of radicalism in the march, especially when they suggest routes or suggest what routes aren’t taken.

What was the role of Jewish leadership in the context of the march? The next aspect to consider is the Jewish leadership within the march. Joachim Prinz the then president of the American Jewish Council stepped up to the podium and gave a speech, appealing to the Jewish community’s both living memory, and history. His speech was after a performance by Odetta, and right before what is commonly considered Martin Luther’s most famous speech, giving it an unenviable position. However the speech itself is a rousing call to action. But within the speech is a bit of subversive language. Joachim declares that the most urgent problem isn’t the hatred, but rather the silence. “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, most disgraceful, most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence.”[3] The important takeaway from this speech, and what can easily make it seem rather insidious is the fact that this takes away from the importance of addressing the hatred itself, and gathering protections for the African-Americans, while redirecting the focus to white participation in the march stating that their participation is the most important factor since it directly addresses the “silence”, once again stealing power and credit from the radical politics that helped birth the civil rights movement. Given Malcolm X’s statements concerning the desire of the white religious leaders to lessen the radicalism of the march, it is easy to see how this speech can also contribute to smothering the fire that made the march such a success. This speech is important to consider in the context of religious leaders and their involvement with the march, especially when one realizes that Joachim was the main Jewish leader in the march, and the one with the highest rank. Unlike the Christians, the Jews in the march were more or less unified underneath Joachim, whereas with the Christians there were Catholic and Protestant leaders present, due to the variety of Christian participation, thus Joachim occupied a unique position of leadership, speaking effectively for all of the Jews interested in the march.

Were there attempts by religious groups or public publications to discredit the movement before or after religious leaders signed on? Another article published in the New York Times, on August 29th 1963, focused on the unity of the faiths as something worth exploring. However the bias is clear, when it states “The march on Washington today bought together the nation’s three major faiths Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish, in support of the Negroes militant bid for full equality.”[4] Given that the definition of militant is “combative, and aggressive in support of a political or social cause and typically favoring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods.” it is clear that there is a bias here which should already make someone skeptical of the author. This could be seen as an attempt to discredit the movement, or at least the movement prior to the leaders of the religious groups joining in on the march. It can easily be interpreted as a weak attempt to poison the well, or reveal information about a group or person which isn’t relevant to the topic at hand and is generally unfavorable, in order to sway public opinion about them and make the target less liked. The article goes on to talk about the specific leaders within the religious movements who are joining the march, in order to sway readers to view the march more favorably on the basis of the leaders fame, a sort of argument from authority.

Was there power in the possibility of marches by solely black civil rights groups? Another valuable source for determining how the Church influenced and may have weakened the power of the march was the Atlanta Daily World. An article published on December 6th 1963 entitled “Council plans ‘Religious March on Washington’ for Rights Bill”[5] reveals that the march on Washington for freedom and jobs wasn’t the only one. The march, which was meant to be a unique and powerful display of black power, and of black objectives accomplished in a peaceful and respectable manner, was basically hijacked by other groups, including religious ones. These marches were meant to support the notion of solidarity for black civil rights groups and the demands they believe in, but what it ended up doing was possibly accidentally stealing a powerful tool from the civil rights movement which had previously been a moving tool for demonstrating that the African American community was capable of protesting in a manner that cannot be seen as wrong, since it was basically the same thing white Americans had done before, and transforming it into the beginning of a trend, not a unique occurrence.

What is the view of the average church-goer when it comes to non-violence? Another article published in The Washington Post indirectly mentioned that the religious movement had essentially stolen the non-violent movement, stating “’Thoughtful churchgoers,’ she says ‘are excited about the potential in the nonviolent movement but they fear it will become less religious or worse a tribal religion,’ a religion in itself.”[6] This also shows the hefty influence that the church must had have on the march, when even the church people feared that the movement would lose its religious footing and become something else altogether. However the notion that the movement needed to retain its religion in order to be valid, which in and of itself is not true. This could be due in part to the large role the church played in convincing average people of the validity of the movement, but it’s sad that to many people the movement was only valid so long as it came from a religious place, and not by any of its own real, secular, merit.

The final article which seems to be indictative of an effort to steal credit for the march comes from the Catholic Church, and it is entitled “Letter to Council Presidents and Chaplains National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice”. It is a document which is written to encourage participation in the march by a myriad of Catholic organizations. However among the various contents of the letter is a request by the authors that Catholics publicize their participation. The reason why this could be done that might weaken the “strong black coffee” of the civil rights movement is that it makes it clear which group these people belong to. “Publicize your participation in the local papers. Please send a copy of this to NCWC News Service, 1312 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W. Washington 5, D.C.”[7] This shouldn’t have been necessary or suggested. It is another way in which the religious leaders are coming together to insist on detracting from the original meaning of the march, which had nothing to do with identifying special groups, but rather true freedom for all. The simple reality is that if the Church had nothing but philanthropic desires from joining the march, it’d have allowed its members to be there silently, a united mass, not a mass clearly separated into special interest groups.

In conclusion, it is easy to see how Malcolm X’s statement concerning the intermingling of a black civil rights movement and the leadership of white religious liberals lessened the strength of the movement. By examining newspaper articles, and a transcript of one of the religious speakers at the march itself, one can begin to see that despite Malcolm’s radical inclinations he wasn’t wrong that there certainly could be a genuinely parasitic purpose in white religious leaders joining the black civil rights movement. From Catholic lay leaders suggesting where not to go, to regular church-going citizens being somewhat afraid of the nonviolent movement becoming a religion onto itself, there is definitely reason to take Malcolm’s words seriously. The interfaith alliance was successful in defeating elements of radicalism in the march, by rendering them invisible and managing to become the root of the movement in the eyes of the average churchgoer. The reasons to agree with Malcolm X’s statements concerning the infiltration of white religious leaders weakening the radicalism of the movement can be clearly seen in regular newspaper articles, without even having to consult scholarship written years and decades after the fact. It is not necessary to be an expert in history to be able to determine that X had a point with his pointed statements.

Bibliography:

1 By AUSTIN C WEHRWEIN Special to The New,York Times. “2 Catholic Leaders Back Clergy on Plans to Join Rights March.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Jul 11, 1963.http://search.proquest.com/docview/116642599?accountid=14604.

2 By Malcom X, “Message to the Grass Roots” November 10th 1963, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/message-to-grassroots/

3 By Joachim Prinz “Address to the marchers” August 28th 1963, http://www.joachimprinz.com/civilrights.htm

4 By IRVING SPIEGEL Special to The New,York Times. “THREE FAITHS JOIN IN RIGHTS DEMAND.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Aug 29, 1963. http://search.proquest.com/docview/116553551?accountid=14604.

5 “Council Plans “religious March on Congress” for Rights Bill.” Atlanta Daily World, December 6, 1963.

6 Cronk, Sue. “Non-violent Direct Action Movement Frightens Average Churchgoer.”Washington Post, November 8, 1963.

7 By: John P. Sisson. “Letter to Council Presidents and Chaplains National Catholic Conference For Interracial Justice”. August 7th 1963 White House Central Files Subject Files General Civil Rights Folder Box 97

 

[1] By AUSTIN C WEHRWEIN Special to The New,York Times. “2 Catholic Leaders Back Clergy on Plans to Join Rights March.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Jul 11, 1963. http://search.proquest.com/docview/116642599?accountid=14604.

[2] By Malcom X, “Message to the Grass Roots” November 10th 1963, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/message-to-grassroots/

[3] By Joachim Prinz “Address to the marchers” August 28th 1963, http://www.joachimprinz.com/civilrights.htm

[4] By IRVING SPIEGEL Special to The New,York Times. “THREE FAITHS JOIN IN RIGHTS DEMAND.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Aug 29, 1963. http://search.proquest.com/docview/116553551?accountid=14604.

[5] “Council Plans “religious March on Congress” for Rights Bill.” Atlanta Daily World, December 6, 1963.

[6] Cronk, Sue. “Non-violent Direct Action Movement Frightens Average Churchgoer.”Washington Post, November 8, 1963.

[7] By: John P. Sisson. “Letter to Council Presidents and Chaplains National Catholic Conference For Interracial Justice”. August 7th 1963 White House Central Files Subject Files General Civil Rights Folder Box 97

This was a paper I wrote about the March on Washington for freedom and jobs. I was expected to write using only primary sources, which are cited, and I personally didn’t like it, and I doubt itll get a super high grade but It’s here for people to read, if they are interested in the work history students do at a moderately high level. The topic was the March on Washington and the influence of White Liberal Religious Leaders. We needed to discuss it, using only primary sources written before the end of 1964. Comment your thoughts below!

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Religious Leaders and the March on Washington

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