Aug 28, 2013

Like a Sunday outing

The March on Washington, 50 years ago and today, is sometimes thought of quite sentimentally. The United News International reported at the time that the mix of religion and politics was "like a Sunday outing."

That's sometimes how it's presented now, too. In memory, in celebration, in appropriation of the image and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the radicalism of the argument, its religion and its politics, is often transformed into something inspirationally sentimental -- and more or less meaningless.

It's worthwhile to remember, though, that the religion at the March involved invocations of the prophets. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of justice "rolling down like water" and the day when "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed." Such language can be understood as vague and inspirational, but it was, in the context of the protest, a radical claim of divine upheaval. And not just in a general, abstract sense, either.

The prophets were invoked to specific ends. The rhetoric was in support of specific policies. The March on Washington involved some concrete demands.

There was a list of 10 demands, a number of which are still controversial 50 years later. The first demand was civil rights legislation that would guarentee all Americans access to public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote.

No. 7 on the list was "A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers -- Negro and white -- on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages."

No. 8, "A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living."

According to Civil Rights Movement Veterans:
The minimum wage at the time of the march was $1.15/hour. After adjusting for inflation, $1.15 in 1963 is equal to $8.78 in 2013. Today in 2013, the federal minimum wage is only $7.25, significantly lower than what it was 50 years ago. After adjusting for inflation, the $2.00/hour minimum wage called for in the March demands would be equal to a minimum wage of $15.27 today, more than twice what it actually is.
The demand was important in the context of the struggle for civil rights, according to Bayard Rustin, who was critical in planning the March. He wrote:

the Negro revolt had, quite properly, begun to become a revolution. The struggle began with the problem of buses and lunch counters and theaters -- in a word, with the problem of dignity. But since the roots of discrimination are economic, and since, in the long run, the Negro, like everyone else, cannot achieve even dignity without a job -- economic issues were bound to emerge, with far-reaching implications.
The implications were there in the religious rhetoric, especially.  King's "dream" was presented on the day of the March as not just an abstraction. Justice was also a jobs program.

The reference to the prophecy about justice's movement, that it "rolls down like water," was offered in the context of John Lewis' speech about "black masses on the march." Lewis, that day, talking of those movements of justice and righteousness, said, "If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our march into Washington. We will march through the South."

An early draft of his speech then invoked a different sort of prophet. "We will march through the South," Lewis wrote, "through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did."

Mark Silk, writing for the Religion News Service, says that after all the polarizations that followed that mix of religion and politics, and how religion has been "subsumed by cultural wars," it's time to reevaluate the wisdom of invoking the prophets for a political program. He calls for a "dialing back of the millennialist dream."

Of course, that was a pretty standard argument made at the time, too, which was why Lewis spoke of critics hollering about "patience" and King of the "tranquilizing drug of gradualism." It's why King said what he said about water rolling down: "No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Whether or not one likes religion in politics, and whether or not one tolerates religion that's not just vague and inspirational, it's worth remembering what was actually happening at that march 50 years ago. It's worth remembering that that "Sunday outing" was a "millennialist dream."