For weeks leading up to the March on Washington in 1963, 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 sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”
Through passionate pulpit sermons, religious leaders — black and white, 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.
“There were buses coming from clear down in Texas and coming up from the Deep South,” Vivian said. “Somebody had to speak out against the way we were treated.”
As sites of strategy sessions and as a means of grooming leaders, the black church’s role in the civil rights movement was critical. Charles Hicks, a longtime activist from Bogalusa, La., said black churches were vital links between communities and activists, especially in small Southern towns. During the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, he said, churches distributed picket signs and provided rides for protesters.
Churches with white congregations also stepped up, activists said.
Jewish congregations, Presbyterians, Quakers and Mennonites sent participants to the march, and churches in the American Baptist Churches USA helped raise money for the movement.
The National Council of Churches, which represents more than 100,000 churches nationwide, organized buses, mostly from the Northeast, to carry people to the march.
Glen Stassen, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, recalled feeling anxious that the march would fizzle. “Would people really show up, or would it be a flop?” he said. “Would somebody do something violent which would mess up the message?”
He soon saw evidence that allayed his fears. “As we came in on a curve on one of the expressways into Washington … all kinds of buses came in from the other direction — just pouring in,” he recalled. “It was obviously going to be a success.”
Some of the churches that participated in 1963 plan to return for this year’s march. Organizers also are targeting first-timers.
“It’s more important that they come now than they did in 1963,” said the Rev. Reginald Green, pastor emeritus of the Walker Memorial Baptist Church in Washington and a former Freedom Rider. “We’re talking about remembering the march, but still we don’t have equal rights.”
Deborah Barfield Berry writes for USA Today.