The Rev. Robert Stone, center, of New York City, speaks June 13, 1961, at a Washington, D.C., bus station before leaving on an expedition through the South with the newly formed Freedom Riders challenging racial barriers. The group was made up of seven African Americans and 11 whites who were protestant ministers or rabbis. At left is the Rev. Perry A. Smith of Brentwood, Md. The Rev. George Leke is at right. The group boarded a regularly scheduled Greyhound bus bound for Miami.
(Charles Gorry, AP)
Through passionate pulpit sermons, religious leaders helped bring busloads to Washington.
For weeks leading up to the March on Washington, the Rev. Perry Smith urged his congregation to join the landmark civil rights event happening a few miles away.
"We felt it was something that needed to occur because of the absence of the rights of African Americans in this country," recalled Smith, 79, who recently retired as pastor of First Baptist Church of North Brentwood in Maryland after more than 50 years. "We wanted to emphasize the need for change, jobs and education."
Smith, a native of Mound Bayou, Miss., and a former Freedom Rider, knew the sting of segregation firsthand. He and other religious leaders called on churchgoers to show up that August day 50 years ago so they could let the nation know.
"They came from everywhere," Smith said. "The crowds were larger than many of us expected. It certainly said, if I could use Fannie Lou Hamer's term, 'People were tired of being sick and tired.'"
Through passionate pulpit sermons, religious leaders -- black and white, from synagogues and dioceses, from North and South -- helped bring busloads to Washington. Fifty years later, organizers are again turning to churches to rally attendance at a week of events marking the anniversary of the march, including a march on Aug. 24.
Activists say recent court rulings could spark a sizable turnout. The Supreme Court recently struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and, in a separate case, raised the standard for race-based admissions policies at colleges and universities.
Many may come to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, which has focused new attention on race relations.
"They've got something to fight about, to stand up to," said the Rev. C.T. Vivian of Atlanta, who urged ministers to join the 1963 march. "It's not too much to think it would be a good-size crowd."
Vivian, the Rev. Martin Luther King's national director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, traveled throughout the South in the early 1960s asking ministers for both participation and help funding bus trips to Washington.
"The church was the only institution we had that could raise money," Vivian said.
But some religious leaders didn't endorse the march and weren't publicly supportive of the movement. Fear was one reason. "Some of them thought that was the only way to protect their congregation," Vivian said.
Many ministers involved in the movement were jailed, beaten and even shot. Some churches were bombed. Despite those dangers, many answered the call to march.
Click here to read more.
SOURCE: USA Today
Deborah Barfield Berry