Religion and the 1963 March on Washington

August 28 is the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. There’s a huge rally down at the Lincoln Memorial today and media coverage has been ramping up in preparation. One of the complaints we’ve gotten about that coverage is that it has oddly avoided mention of the religious component of the original march and of continued civil rights efforts. And that has been missing from some coverage.

But let’s look at some of the coverage that did cover that angle, and covered it well. First up is (friend of the blog) Hamil Harris’ piece in the Washington Post headlined “Civil Rights leaders lift up prayers marking March on Washington.”

I stole this picture from Harris’ twitter feed. He said of it that William Allison,92, came to the march with same sign in 1963.

The story is full of great quotes, including:

Rev. Kendrick E. Curry, pastor of the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, told the crowd of several hundreds that the “prayer and praise service grounds the 50th anniversary march so that it can become transformative.”

“ If we simply gather without the very rooting that the original march had, and the spirit that King had, then we are forever off course and out of order,” Curry said.

and:

Rev. Barbara Williams Skinner, co-chair of the National African American Clergy Network and a spiritual advisor to President Obama, gave the closing charge for the evening. She she said that it was important to remember that march began in a sanctuary.

“It suggests that prayer and worship was behind the civil rights movement,” Skinner said in an interview. “It was then and it is now. Without the power of God we won’t get anywhere, we won’t have voting rights… we won’t have anything that we are really seeking.”

Frequently reporters don’t include such religious language in stories about this and other mass efforts, even though people allude to and specifically reference their religious motivation. Kudos for simply reporting some of these powerful quotes.

While we’re looking at Post coverage, here’s an interesting essay by one of the original reporters who covered the march. It’s about how the paper was trying to get a story about some type of problem breaking out at the march. By focusing on that, it missed the major news of the day — the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But I couldn’t help but think it’s also about how much difficulty many media outlets continue to have about covering a march. Part of that is cultural — the coverage of early Tea Party protests was so tonally off as to be offensive — particularly the hungry efforts to find “problems” at the march. You didn’t see similar efforts at ideological protests from cultural bedfellows, such as the Colbert/Stewart rallies. But you can still sense the confusion and misguided efforts at covering massive annual pro-life marches. Perhaps the essay should be required reading in newsrooms. A snippet:

We were poised and ready for a riot, for trouble, for unexpected events — but not for history to be made.

My favorite religion news angle on the March anniversary events comes from Religion News Service. Adelle M. Banks and Corrie Raye Mitchell interviewed tons of participants in the march and Banks and Sally Morrow compiled photos and videos to make a fantastic multi-media presentation. It’s fun to just wander through the package, with interviews of:

 

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Why can’t press get religion, when covering black churches?

Let’s face it. The mainstream press really struggles when trying to cover life in African-American churches.

On one level, black churches are treated like giant political institutions that — in a city like Baltimore — speak for a crucial segment of the voting public.

There is some truth in that view. Any student of American religion knows that, for generations, the pulpits of major churches played a central role in black culture, a place where strong, prophetic voices could be heard during hard times when they were not welcome in the public square.

Thus, reporters will show up to hear black preachers talk about politics. But is there more to preaching in black churches than mere politics?

Journalists also know that the black church is a powerful force in culture, especially when it comes to music. How does anyone try to tell the story of popular music in America without focusing on the role that gospel musicians played in the birth of blues, jazz, funk and soul music?

So, yes, journalists know that the black church is a powerful force in the arts and in culture. But is there more to the music of African-American churches than that beat, that power and, yes, that soul? What about the content of the songs and hymns?

Now what else is missing in this picture?

I think it’s crucial for reporters to remember that we are, first and foremost, talking about CHURCHES, not political think tanks or concert halls.

Many times, while covering events in black churches over the years, I have heard pastors say something like this: Why is it that reporters always want to talk to me about politics, but the minute I start talking about Jesus they just aren’t interested?

I thought about that this morning while reading The Baltimore Sun obituary for the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor at New Shiloh Baptist Church — a truly historic figure in our city on a number of different levels.

What is missing from this obituary? Try to guess.

The story starts strong and then, at a crucial moment, the Sun team simply drops the ball.

The Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter Sr., senior pastor of the New Shiloh Baptist Church, whose legendary preaching spanned generations and brought him an audience beyond his congregation of 5,000 members, died of cancer Thursday. He was 76.

In 47 years of ministry, Dr. Carter preached with legends of the civil rights era, before his congregation in West Baltimore and to bigger audiences across America and in foreign countries. And for years, his resounding voice could be heard on Sundays on WBAL-Radio.

One sermon more than three decades ago — when he filled 14,000 seats in what is now the 1st Mariner Arena for an evangelistic crusade — still resonates with the Rev. A.C.B. Vaughn, the senior pastor of Sharon Baptist Church and a family friend.

“The greatest sermon he ever gave was his life,” said Vaughn. “Harold Carter was one of the crown jewels. His main thrust was prayer and evangelization. He had a passion for saving souls.”

That’s pretty good. So how does the story follow up on the key elements of his life, which were evangelism, prayer and preaching? By the way, he was also a leader in the evangelical Promise Keepers ministries for men, a major force for racial reconciliation in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity.

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