One of the landmark events of the 20th Century occurred on Aug. 28, 1963 with the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech, ranked by a 1999 poll as the top American speech of the century. In recalling events connected with this notable event and looking over the program of the March on Washington, the influence of religion is clearly evident.
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, 250,000 blacks and whites gathered to hear presentations from Christian and Jewish leaders, as additional millions watched on television. On the program were Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, Rabbi Uri Miller, President Synagogue Council of America and Dr. Benjamin Mays, President of Morehouse College, noted Baptist minister, all of whom offered prayers. Mahalia Jackson, the renowned “Queen of Gospel” sang from her heart and so the story goes, later encouraged Dr. King with “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” which prompted him to go into the speech which had not been part of the message that he had prepared.
Of the nine speakers that day four were religious leaders. Matthew Brown reports that King explained that those appearing on the program, those who were deeply involved in the movement represented a “confluence of a major part of the black movement with the larger ferment in American Christianity and Judaism.”
Dr. King, committed Christian minister of the Gospel, presided over the civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the early days of the Civil Rights movement from 1948-1963, Dr. Martin Luther King incorporated the principles of non-violence as taught and practiced by Ghandi and applied them to Christianity. The synthesis of these two elements is indicated in the Commitment Card that each volunteer in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Dr. King, pledged to adhere to. Here is a replica:
I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF—MY PERSON AND BODY—TO THE NON-VIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE, I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING TEN COMMANDMENTS:
1. MEDITATE daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.
3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain of a demonstration.
I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.
At the heart of the original March on Washington, and, indeed, the core of the Civil Rights Movement itself was the Christian-Judeo values system that has undergirded the nation since its inception. Fifty years after the historic gathering in the Nation’s Capital, observers recall that the heart of movement embodied Christian principles, such as those expressed in the 10 Points of Commitment of the Civil Rights Movement, which still have application today.
Take a look at the slide show of scenes from the 1963 March on Washington. The accompanying video also shows excerpts from Dr. King’s unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech.