Religion and the 1963 March on Washington

Religion and the 1963 March on Washington August 24, 2013

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.


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:


You can watch the “I Have a Dream” speech and you can click through a photo slideshow of the day’s events. Just a fantastic and educational package. Kudos to the team who put it together.

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4 responses to “Religion and the 1963 March on Washington”

  1. “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.”

    What was so tonally off about Tea Party protests: that the extremist rhetoric and racist overtones were accurately reported? The coverage of the March for Life protests has indeed been abysmal but I would be hard pressed to make the same assertion about the Tea Party fanatics. All they have to do is speak for themselves.

    • Very interesting that you believe that this particular protest effort was accurately covered. I happened to cover a few of these protests and the disparity between what I personally witnessed and what the coverage indicated was eye-opening. Not just in terms of what was reported but, more so, what wasn’t. In one instance, a major media reporter friend of mine wrote something that was so egregiously wrong that I called him on it. He hadn’t even attended the protest about which he wrote. He was inside the U.S. Capitol building the whole time…

  2. Yes, let’s ignore that the creator of the March, A Philip Randolph, was an atheist.

    Let’s also ignore that the chief organizer of the March, Bayard Rustin, was an atheist.

    Let’s also ignore that the union coordinator for the March was Stanley Aronowitz, an atheist.

    Let’s ignore that half the Chairmen of the March, including Walter Reuther, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins.

    Yes, let’s ignore that the founders & leadership of CORE, SNCC, SDS, the NAACP and the ACLU were all atheists.
    Let’s ignore James Foreman, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, not to mention W.E.B. DuBois, Henry Moskowitz, Lena Horne, Lorraine Hansberry, and on and on and on.

    Let’s ignore the historic coalitions in which theists and atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists & other religionists, People of all colors, worked together to bring about change.

    Yes, let’s make this all about the Christian Church.

    • Thanks for your input. I was unaware of the extent atheists were at work on the MOW. And yes, it took a broad coalition to pull it of and civil rights legislation. But I doubt that, in 1963, there would have been many people attending among the grassroots who weren’t religious in some form. Plus, the point of the post is ignoring the influence of religion when it certainly is a relevant factor which most journalists choose to ignore or are largely ignorant of. Besides, I’m a bit confused why you would want “atheism” to be acknowledged in a post pointing out how the religious angle was missing as an influence when it was clearly there.

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