CHRISTIANITY TODAY assigned four of us to cover the massive civil rights demonstration in Washington on August 28. Our job was to analyze the religious element of the march. An abundant sprinkling of piety was promised, and organized religion seemed eager to assume a major role in the day’s activities. But did the religious element have a genuine spiritual under-girding, or was it a mere form of godliness with the power thereof implicitly denied?
We met at the office at 8 A.M., although one of us had sacrificed sleep to observe the arrival at the Washington Monument grounds two hours earlier of American Nazis headed by George Lincoln Rockwell. The Nazis immediately drew a cordon of police and the attendant international publicity. They had been refused an official permit for the grounds and were forbidden to make speeches. Rockwell seized the opportunity to complain via radio and television that his rights had been denied him. His impatient deputy later tried to make a speech and was carted off to jail.
Following our office meeting we fanned out over the downtown Washington area. One headed for a breakfast meeting of 200 denominational leaders at the Statler Hilton, another for the New Bible Way Church where 200 Washington ministers held an interdenominational service.
On Capitol Hill, various Congressmen were receiving the ten leaders of the march, a group which included three clergymen: Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. and vice-chairman of the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Baptist minister and founder-president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress. Catholics were represented on the presidium by a layman, sociologist Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice.
By mid-morning crowds were pouring into the monument grounds, but not as quickly as police had expected. Some feared the turnout might be disappointing.
Although numerous key religious figures discreetly shunned the demonstration or were non-committal, few voiced any public protests. One exception was Dr. Carl McIntire, of the American Council of Christian Churches, who expressed strong opposition to the march and disappointment that he had been refused an interview with President Kennedy.
We met again on the monument grounds shortly after 11 A.M. to coordinate our activities for the remainder of the day. By this time a sea of humanity had descended on the area. The melancholy chants of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary could be heard for blocks.
Somewhat ahead of schedule the crowds began to move down Constitution Avenue toward the Lincoln Memorial. Many lined up to purchase bag lunches provided by the NCC. The lunches were originally to have been provided out of Church World Service relief funds. However, it was subsequently decided to sell them at 50 cents each, a price described as “below cost.” Each lunch contained a white bread sandwich with two slices of cheese (American), an apple (Macintosh), and a piece of cake (chocolate ripple).
Meanwhile, a number of Washington area churches were holding services or keeping their doors open for special prayer sessions. Some had conducted all-night prayer vigils.
The only serious controversy of the day developed when Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick A. O’Boyle, who was to deliver the invocation at the Lincoln Memorial program, saw the speech text of John Lewis. The prelate threatened to boycott the ceremony unless Lewis, chairman of the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, revised his remarks, which he did. The original text of the Lewis speech read: “We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power outside of any national structure that could and would assure us of victory.” Lewis agree to delete the passage and another which referred to “cheap politicians” in Congress.
This was the most apparent evidence that participation in the march by religious groups helped substantially in keeping the proceedings remarkably peaceful.
One marcher died after being stricken with a heart attack.
The day was mostly bright, with temperatures in the eighties. Washington’s notorious humidity was somewhat offset by a fresh breeze and scattered clouds in the afternoon.
Highlighting the afternoon ceremony was the great oratory of King, who cried again and again, “I have a dream.” But as if to prove that people doze despite the best of preachers, hundreds stretched out on the grass and slept most of the afternoon away. Another temptation was the cool water of the Reflecting Pool, and other hundreds kicked off their shoes and stockings to dangle their feet over the edge. At least two persons fell into the shallow pool.
A. Philip Randolph, 74-year-old elder statesman of civil rights in America and the son of a clergyman, was among several speakers who appealed to religious precedent. Randolph, program emcee and chairman of the national march committee, reminded the vast throng of more than 200,000 that “we are leading the multitudes in the streets just as … Jesus Christ led the multitudes in the streets.”
NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, seeking to perpetuate the fervor of the day, said:
“You got religion here today. Don’t back-slide tomorrow.”
Blake declared that Negroes “have mirrored the suffering of Jesus Christ.” He quoted Romans 12:1 as a helicopter whirred high overhead.
These were only a few of the religious overtones of the demonstration. We reassembled at the office early in the evening to discuss their significance and to compare notes. Some reporters recalled that during his U. S. visit four years ago atheist Khrushchev had regularly cited Scripture and invoked the aid of deity.
MARTYR MEDGAR EVERS
The black man fell and helpless lay,
A gaping wound upon his back,
A witness to the savage way,
A beast had made his foul attack.
His wound puked out his noble blood.
His blood sank deep in freedom’s soil …
“My God,” his wife cried out, “My God!”
Is t-h-i-s reward for freedom’s toil?
“Where is the justice in this land?
That loudly tolls the freedom bell,
While tyrants rule with a free hand
Committing all the sins of hell?”
Ole glory’s tarnished with his blood,
For having shabbily allowed
A noble son to be downtrod
Because he was both black and proud.
We were agreed, however, that Communists had no appreciable influence in the March on Washington. Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s assistant, says he left the Young Communist League in 1941. Reliable sources estimated that 135 Communists led by Gus Hall had come from New York for the march, but they apparently regarded themselves as mere spectators. March leaders said they would repudiate the support of any subversive groups.
Through the course of the day we had interviewed scores of marchers, trying to get at basic motivations.
One of us, attempting an overall tally, gave this description: “It was like a church picnic. Not as much food, but more speeches.”
But how spiritual is a church picnic?
Going a step further, it seemed quite obvious that many of the marchers were devout Christians. Some had prayed long and hard for a peaceful march.
Many composite appeals to religion, on the other hand, seemed little more than feeble attempts to put in a good word for God. A placard of the United Auto Workers read, “Be one with God—Speak Out for Freedom.” A delegation of Kansas City Presbyterians clapped its way to the ceremonies singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” (Civil rights demonstrators have appropriated numerous gospel selections, giving temporal meanings to spiritual themes.)
In one bit of frivolity, members of the Washington clergy committee for the march wheeled a casket titled “Jim Crow Diehards” to the Washington Monument. Perhaps the most moving display was a poem (see above) lettered upon the slats of a Venetian blind.
There were hundreds of clergymen among the marchers, most of them Protestant. The word was out among those participating under the NCC banner that they were to wear their clerical collars. For some it was the first time in years.
Disappointing to many freedom-loving Americans was the fact that the leadership of the march had allied itself so closely with federal legislation proposals. The leaders did not bother to face the full implication of giving personal rights priority over property rights. They did not suggest how federal statutes might be enforced.
The civil rights march, although orderly, involved nonetheless some civil wrongs. Perhaps the most pointed irony, however, was that the nation’s capital took on the earmarks of a garrison state to enable a freedom rally to be held. Some 1,500 National Guardsmen were mobilized and stationed throughout the downtown Washington area. Another 4,000 Army troops stood by in readiness, and thirty helicopters were flown in to carry them should trouble develop.
The world’s largest Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God, regards itself less as an organization than a movement of the Spirit. Nevertheless, its thirtieth biennial General Council in Memphis last month was devoted largely to recapturing the Spirit and renewing and implementing “the Pentecostal experience.”
Daily business meetings were chiefly concerned with such organizational changes, election of such officers, and the laying of such soul-winning plans as would return the glow and power of the Spirit that marked the Assemblies in an earlier day. Doubtless the felt duty of constantly re-experiencing a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit has as its underside the continuing, restive implication of spiritual inadequacy. Concern was expressed over a confessed loss of evangelistic zeal, departure of evangelists from the field of duty, and the quality of the churches’ evangelists. The attempt to correct this situation by effecting and implementing fresh movements of the Holy Spirit does not come easily to a church which believes that organization, programming, and devised techniques tend to encumber the free movement of the Spirit. Delegates tended to view every proposed corrective device as a step toward bureaucracy and centralization which would infringe on the Spirit’s movements in the local congregation. The Assemblies have a traditional pattern of self-government within the local congregation.
In a major action, the council eliminated its department of evangelism and transferred its functions to the office of the general superintendent, the church’s highest office, held by the Rev. Thomas F. Zimmerman. Zimmerman is also chairman of the Executive Presbytery, General Presbytery, General Council, and Central Bible Institute. Some delegates denounced the transfer as a move toward centralization. Comments from members of the department itself seemed to indicate that the motivation was less a desire for centralization than the inability of the department to discover any distinctive function for itself in a denomination where evangelism is regarded as the chief function of all its departments.
Early in the council’s sessions the church’s popular and efficient general superintendent was reelected for his third two-year term. He received 94 per cent of the votes, compared with 97 per cent two years ago.
In the keynote address Zimmerman pleaded for a militant Christianity and warned against placing too much emphasis on education. He recalled earlier days when “a convert wanted to immediately begin preaching in a church, on the street,” and he added, “We need that same zeal today, and need it more than ever.” The Rev. Frederick H. Huber of Linden, New Jersey, also urged that Pentecostalism is being threatened by intellectualism, as well as by materialism and worldliness. “Emphasis on things, knowledge and pleasure have always been the foes of God’s spiritual people, but there is an intensification of their attack today.” But the Rev. C. C. Burnett, president of Bethany Bible College in Santa Cruz, California, voiced concern because fewer young people in the Assemblies are studying for the ministry in the church’s theological institutions.
No biblical text arouses more response from the membership of the Assemblies than the prophecy: “… in the last days, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” The all-white council of the nearly fifty-year-old denomination, whose headquarters are in Springfield. Missouri, met under a huge banner carrying the inscription: Upon All Flesh.
Zeal marks the Assemblies of God. They have a U. S. membership of half a million, and an even larger membership in seventy-two foreign countries. They firmly believe that Pentecostalism is no historical accident of the twentieth century and that they are a special creation and choice of God in the last days to tell the Church and the world of the power inherent in the Pentecostal experience of the Holy Spirit for holy living and for proclaiming the early return of Christ. On the ethical problems of social life they are remarkably silent.
Pentecostalism is proof that the new wine of the Spirit tends to burst the old wineskins. The Assemblies of God are proof that fresh creations of the Spirit can themselves become occasions where it is difficult “to hold that fast which thou hast”—to use the words of one of the council’s speakers. At a time when the Spirit is moving in new and strange ways even within the old-line denominations, the largest church of the Pentecostal movement is finding it difficult to recapture and retain its earlier measure of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit within its own denominational wineskin. This might rightly be heard as the Spirit’s speaking to the churches, warning each of them against too easily assuming that it is God’s special choice to assume a special task not given to others—a warning against the presumptive assertion made in reference to ecumenical churches by one of the Assemblies’ top leaders: “I have no time to take counsel with those who do not have the same evangelical zeal that we do.”
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