On August 26, 2023, thousands of people from around the nation and world will gather in Washington, DC for the 60th anniversary and commemoration of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This has been deemed to be a day of not only commemoration but a continuation of the march toward freedom and justice for all people.
The August 28, 1963, March on Washington came at the height of the American Civil Rights Movement, as over 250,000 persons gathered to call the nation to action as it regarded the rights of all people to racial justice and economic opportunity. Among those who spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on that sunlit day was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As King moved toward the conclusion of his 17-minute set of remarks, now known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, encouraged King to “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
Much of the world is now familiar with the dream that King proceeded to share where he described his singular vision of the Beloved Community, where girls and boys of all races could play together and go to school together, and where people would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
Amidst the eloquence of King’s “I Have a Dream” recitation, what is often missed is that earlier in his remarks he spoke of something equally as important to those who
heard it then, and us who hear it today. King spoke of “the fierce urgency of now,” and the need for immediate action in overcoming racism, classism, militarism, and other “isms” and harmful phobias in society.
King addressed the matter of gradualism and argued for immediacy, and the “urgency of now” in acting against unjust laws and seeking to move toward racial, social, and economic justice for all people. He said, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
Earlier in 1963 in Detroit, Michigan, King had similarly alluded to this fierce urgency. He said “But these events that are taking place in our nation tell us something else. They tell us that the Negro and his allies in the white community now recognize the urgency of the moment… And so, this social revolution taking place can be summarized in three little words. They are not big words. One does not need an extensive vocabulary to understand them. They are the words “all,” “here,” and “now.” We want all of our rights, we want them here, and we want them now.”
In light of King’s dream and call for the church and society to move forward with a fierce urgency of now, much continues to ail our nation and the world today – including persistent and widespread poverty, inequality, a shrinking middle class, challenges to women’s rights and voting rights, ongoing wars and global conflict, ongoing street violence and gun violence, an American prison industrial complex that continues to expand – resulting in the over-incarceration of Black and Brown people, and disparities in educational achievement across race and class lines.
And so, 60 years after the March on Washington, we might wonder what King would say to the church and society today. To paint a picture of where society found itself during his lifetime, King shared the story of the Good Samaritan and offered a depiction of the Jericho Road (Luke 10:25-37). He said, that the “Jericho Road is a dangerous road … It’s a winding, meandering road.”
If King were here today at the commemoration and continuation of the March on Washington, he might remind us that the Samaritan offered altruistic concern to his neighbor, and then he might share insight into what it means to show altruistic concern on the various Jericho roads that we must now travel. King might remind us that the creative altruism that the Good Samaritan demonstrated was universal, excessive, and dangerous.
But wanting to justify himself, the Pharisee asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) Through this parable, Jesus disclosed his definition of a neighbor. King intimated that a neighbor is “any certain man or woman – any person in need – on any of the numerous Jericho roads of life.”
A neighbor is Jew and Gentile; Russian and American; Muslim and Christian; Native American, Hispanic, Asian, white, and black. She/he is richer and poorer; left and right; conservative, moderate, and liberal; Democrat, Republican, and Independent.
Finally, those who gathered for the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, gathered with persistent hope for a better world. For Martin Luther King, Jr., Christian hope served as the foundation for his vision of the Beloved Community. According to him, hope is “the refusal to give up despite overwhelming odds” and shares the belief that “all reality hinges on moral foundations.” He defined hope as that quality that is “necessary for life,” and asserted that hope was to be viewed as “animated and undergirded by faith and love.”
Thus, as we remember those who gathered in Washington, DC 60 years ago and as we look to the future, a lasting prayer for us is that faith, hope, and love will abide in the world today and tomorrow. Might King’s dream, as articulated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on that August day, become a reality for us that “out of whatever mountains of despair are present among us, there will be hewn stones of hope.”