This is the first article in a five-part series in which United Methodists recall the impact that the March on Washington had, and continues to have, on their lives and work.
It was 50 years ago–Aug. 28, 1963–that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., led the historic “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” which reached its thundering crescendo when King declared, “I have a dream” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Civil Rights’ icon the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. and the Rev. George McClain, both retired United Methodist clergy who are still active in human rights advocacy, each attended the 1963 March on Washington.
As a seminary student at Vanderbilt University in 1960, Lawson had helped train and organize Freedom Riders to ride on integrated buses in the southern United States and led students in lunch counter sit-ins as nonviolent protests against legal racial segregation aimed at African-Americans. He also worked with King to rally nationwide participation in the 1963 march.
Lawson’s activism got him expelled from the Nashville-based theological school. (In 1996, Vanderbilt named Lawson as a distinguished alumni of the year; 10 years later, the university formally apologized for its treatment of Lawson and made him a guest lecturer.)
It was Lawson who later invited King to Memphis in April 1968 to dramatize their struggle of sanitation workers who were on strike. King delivered his famous “mountaintop” speech in support of the strike in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination.
King once called Lawson, who retired in 1999 after serving 25 years as senior pastor of Holman UMC in Los Angeles, “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”
Now 84, Lawson continues to answer the call to push for justice, advocating for economic justice, for better public education, and on for full rights for gays and lesbians in the United Methodist Church.
As he remembers the March on Washington, Lawson says with pride, “It was a moment in history when God saw fit to call America back from the depths of moral depravity and onto his path of righteousness.”
McClain was also a seminary student that year, a White man from New York who was working in Birmingham, Ala., as an intern through the statewide Council on Human Relations, assisting African-American pastor, the Rev. Nathaniel Lindsey, with ministry in a local Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) congregation.
McClain spent that year teaching vacation bible school, helping with community organizing, and working with local clergy to challenge Jim Crow laws and racist practices aimed at marginalizing black citizens. This may seem mild advocacy by 2013 standards, but McClain—like Lawson—was living and working interracially during a time when young women and men were being shot at, harassed, threatened, jailed and even murdered for daring the cross the ridged color line.
When the region’s CME bishop organized six busloads of church members to take an all-night bus ride to Washington in time for the march, McClain was the only white person among them. Upon arrival, he and Lindsey donned their clerical robes and marched together.
He recalls being exhilarated. “The media and some and politicians tried to scare the nation by predicting rioting and mayhem in the streets of Washington, but it was like a Sunday school picnic—people hugging, shaking hands, sharing food with each other, and asking, ‘Where are you from?’”
He remembers being fidgety after hours of sitting in the oppressive Washington sun, listening to endless speeches. “But when Dr. King stepped to that podium, a hush came over the gathering.
“By the time he declared his dream, about little black children and little white children walking together in brotherhood and sisterhood, I knew I was watching the course of the history being altered,” McClain recalls.
“That experience during that year totally shaped my ministry. I changed from an armchair activist to putting my feet and hands where my heart was,” McClain recalls.
A native of Indiana, McClain had earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University in 1960. His thesis: “Segregation and The Methodist Church, 1939-1960.” It was at Union Theological Seminary where his activism was honed and, after completing his master’s, he joined the Methodist Student Movement interracial field staff. Later, as a pastor on Staten Island, N.Y., he organized a chapter of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam.
McClain went on to become executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, a caucus founded in 1907 to focus the attention of the United Methodist Church on issues of social, economic, racial and other injustice. After serving in that position for 25 years, McClain, now 75, is now an adjunct faculty member at New York Theological Seminary and teaching theology classes to people in prison through the College of New Jersey.
How can your congregation, campus ministry, or United Methodist group join the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington? Find out here!
M. Garlinda Burton is a consultant, writer and editor living in Nashville, Tenn. She is a member of Hobson United Methodist Church.