Martin Luther King Jr. seen during his “I Have a Dream” speech.AP
Shouts of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” reverberating throughout the muggy, late-summer air.
A kaleidoscope of humanity, culled from every corner of this nation, and from other nations as well, rhythmically swaying to and fro.
It was 50 years ago, on August 28, 1963, to be exact, that a revival took place on the National Mall. Many attendances that day, an estimated 250,000 people, made the pilgrimage to the nation’s capital to see and hear an impressive coterie of freedom fighters explicate, through soul-stirring songs and captivating sermons, the need for social justice.
Since that day, the lion share of adoration for the march’s success has been given to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his transcendently efficacious “I Have a Dream” speech. Certainly, the speech has become inculcated within the nation’s collective conscious, foremostly for its vivid depiction of an interracial brotherhood, a veritable human family. But King’s enunciation of the “Dream,” although highly important, should by no means take away from the integral role that so many others played on that memorable day. Most important, we must never forget those participants who, through sermon and song, broke up the fallow ground so that the restorative water of his words could reach the parched souls of the thousands in attendance—and the countless others listening by radio or watching by television.
Over the last week, which has been set aside to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, there have been two commemorative events that have recalled not only the 1963 march itself but its ensuing effect on the nation’s moral comportment.
The first march took place August 24, and was convened by the National Action Network (NAN), a civil rights organization led by the Rev. Al Sharpton. A number of speakers, including Congressman John Lewis, Attorney General Eric Holder, civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, and, of course, the closer, Sharpton himself, shared their appraisal of how far the nation has come in terms of making King’s dream a reality. As expected, there were some speakers, like the Reverend Joseph Lowery, who underscored that the election of the first African American president evinces the nation’s maturation on matters of racial discrimination. But on the other hand, the same speakers noted that much needed to be done to create a veritable tapestry of human brotherhood, which King spoke of fifty years prior. Certainly, such questionable measures as the recent decimation of the Voting Rights Act are not facilitating the dream’s actualization.
The second event took place on Wednesday, August 28, and was deemed the “official” celebration of the 1963 march. A crowd of common folk, celebrities, and dignitaries, were in attendance to hear civil rights leaders and former presidents share personal testimonies of how both the march and the “dream” speech changed the nation. Many of the speakers expressed their ambivalence about the nation’s current sociopolitical climate. For instance, former president Bill Clinton said that “It’s time to stop complaining and put our shoulders against the stubborn gates holding the American people back.” Strong words from Brotha’ Bill, once dubbed the first black president, whose own record is spotted with such controversial legislative measures as the “Personality Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” a federal law that radically shifted how financial assistance is allotted to the poor, especially within minority communities. It was his Democratic administration, backed by a revived Republican majority in the Congress, that created one of the very governmental “stubborn gates” that is holding back America’s underclass.
Needless to say, despite the important issues raised at both marches, it seemed that something was missing.
Frank James, a writer for NPR, has it that what was missing from the marches, especially the one on Wednesday, was a bipartisan tone that would have signaled that King’s dream is not the exclusive preserve of the Democratic Party. Yes, the presence of a couple speakers from the Grand Old Party would have been nice, I suppose, but that still would have not have provided that “something” that was missing. After all, there were no Republican speakers at 1963 march—and everything turned out just fine.
What was missing from the marches this week was more than bipartisanship: It was the spirit that was present 50 years ago.
Looking back, many forget that the original march was not at all spectacular, maybe a bit quotidian, until the renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson took the stage. Jackson, heralded as the supreme gospel songstress, began singing “I Been ‘Buked and I been Scorned,” a song that was requested by Dr. King. According to Eric Sundquist’s King’s Dream, Jackson said that she started the song softly, but soon felt the audience’s palpable response. She interpreted the audience’s reception as a sign that she could increase the intensity of her performance, and so she decided to change the tempo of the music to a gospel beat. It would not be long before Jackson was clapping her hands and swaying from side to side. But that was not all.
During her performance, the audience was filled with people of every color waving flags, clapping their hands, and shouting for joy. All of which made it seem as though the Spirit had arrived, much like an ol’ time revival. Jackson herself later remarked, “I hadn’t planned to start a revival meeting but for the moment the joy overflowed throughout the great rally.”
Fifty years from now, as the 100th anniversary of the March on Washington is celebrated, there will be numerous speakers—dignitaries, celebrities, and so on—who will look back on the events of this week with fondness. It is sad, though, that they will not be able to say, like those who were at the 1963 march when Mahalia Jackson brought the Spirit down, that a revival broke out on the National Mall.
And it was a revival that saved the nation.
Jay-Paul Hinds is assistant professor of pastoral care, practical theology, and psychology of religion at Howard University School of Divinity.