Six Questions to the Marchers on Washington

January 25, 2022 • Rev. Dick Hamilton

Sermon by Dick Hamilton on August 25, 1963

St. Luke’s UMC Indianapolis, IN

(Note to reader: This is a transcript of copies from the original typed and hand-written manuscript. Not all words and phrases were clear so there are several blanks where uncertain and in other places words filled in as could be best interpreted. It is also important to understand that many of the words and expressions used are in keeping with respectful phrases and racial identifications of the time)

Everyone who reads an English-language newspaper and most of those who get their news in other tongues must know by now that Wednesday of this week will see one of the most dramatic episodes on the American scene in many a year. Tens of thousands of citizens, black, brown, and white will surge into Washington as the day begins, swirl about the city, and then, according to the plan, recede like the tide before the sunsets.

The news media will have a wild and hectic but glorious time trying to cover something too big and too fleeting to cover. Some of the participants will become ill; some unruly; some disillusioned. Much of the normal life of the nation’s capital will grind to a halt. The staggering problems of logistics – the care and feeding of 100-200,000 summer guests – have occupied scores of people in recent weeks. Presidential advisors have had to add the event to the agenda of top-level discussions when such things as test-ban treaties and tax programs demand uncommon energy. Before the first marcher has started down Constitution Ave. it is safe to predict that the day will produce one of the chief symbolic acts in our national life in our lifetime.

The problems of organizing a symbol are immense. The growing momentum of numbers has struck fear into the hearts of responsible officialdom. The explosive nature of the cause plus the inherent dangers of masses of people mean that dangers of expressive force cannot be dismissed.

In the midst of such factors many legitimate and important questions are raised in the minds of both the congenitally sympathetic and the congenitally antagonistic. A good deal of stirring within the Christian community has resulted from the project. Church leaders on national, state, and local levels have wrestled with the meaning of this event for the church. Individual Christians find themselves with widely varying reactions. Some are sure it is of the devil, or at least the Communists; some will be carrying standards; many have a fundamental sympathy with the objectives but a deep distrust of the means; most, as is always true, find mixed emotions and judgments playing back and forth across their minds and hearts. All of us, think and converse, try out our judgments on friends, and most of us will decide it is good to be a spectator, to sit back to await the outcome with Huntley and Brinkley.

Because the underlying issue is one which is undeniably moral and religious; because _______ _______ much on the scene, as I shall describe in a moment; and because individual responsible Christians are concerned, let’s ask our questions within the context of Christian worship and thought.

I have formulated six such questions to the marchers on Washington. They could be and are many more. Following the service perhaps you would like to raise some of them with one another and with me in the parlor. Bet let the six be starting points.

The first is preliminary and strictly informational. What’s going to happen? A vast number of persons, estimates run from 125,000 – 250,000, from all 50 states will make their way to Washington within the next three days, the great bulk of them to arrive only on Wednesday morning, by a swarm of chartered buses, trains, and planes. They will be heavily Negro by many whites will be among them. They will assemble in the area of the Washington monument during the morning. Many representative groups, including some of those from Indiana, will have conferences with their senators and congressmen. At twelve noon two parallel lines of march will move from the Washington monument area along Constitution and Independence Avenues to the Lincoln Memorial area. There, mass meetings will be held. Before the supper hour, it is hoped that most of the visitors will be back on their buses or trains for the return trips to their homes. During the day leaders of the movement will confer with key Congressional leaders and with the President. At the same time in many communities across the nation, satellite meetings or services or both will be underway.

The entire event has been planned as thoroughly/carefully as possible though with less time than such an undertaking should have had. Every effort is being made to insure order and dignity. For example, word has gone out that no slogans and banners are to be used, only standards identifying constituent groups. The most perfect plans are seldom perfectly executed, out such is the outline of what is planned to happen.

The second question, and more important to ask of the marcher is What are you trying to accomplish? As the scope of the march has grown, even so, have the objectives. Originally the objective was to dramatize the employment needs of Negroes. Today the objectives seem to be broad – to symbolize the strength of the Negro demand for new opportunities and equality in many areas of life, to demonstrate to Congress that the time is now for significant new federal legislation in the civil rights field, to confront national leaders with specific demands for equality of education, law enforcement, real estate, public accommodations, employment, to provide a dramatic symbol of the rising impatience of Negroes with what they call gradualism; and to give to others in our society the kind of focal point which will draw them into unity with the Negroes of the notion in mandating its people to be the free and open society we profess and basically intended to be, free and open for every person (man) on the same basis.

I have not seen any formal listing of objectives under authorized signature, but I take it that these just listed would not be far afield.

Now the questions become pressing for the Christian. Why should such a monstrous demonstration concern the church? A careful distinction is important here if we are to hear and respond to the question intelligently. In so far as the question, which is frequently heard, is a question about why the church should be concerned with the fundamental movement upwards of the Negro American, his cry to acceleration in liberty, his demand for open doors – I say, when the question is why should Christians get involved in such things, the dominant domestic issue on the scene today, I must admit to more than a little impatience with the question.

Some of you have been reading Luke with me these recent days. Did you read chapter 10 this week – the Good Samaritan. Have you read of the touch of Jesus extended to heal and set free? Do you remember his earlier scathing words to those who kept the minutia of righteousness but left justice to others. The testimony of the churches is clear. The mandate of the Bible can scarcely be misread. It is the business of God’s people to minister to all God’s children, not as benevolent overlords, but as brothers in life as they shall be in death.

As I prepared this sermon the temptation was almost overpowering to extend this point. If the church has nothing to say to our society in our day at this point, then the church is an insulated island of self-righteousness which deserves to die. “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of these…ye did it not to me.”

I said a distinction has to be made. There is no place to stand within the Biblical faith and counsel the church to remain aloof from the basic issues here. There is, however, a decided latitude within the faith as to what particular means the church should use to expect its obedience to its Master. Specifically, Christians may question whether the march on Washington is a proper or helpful way of moving Negro rights forward. The question here is of strategy, not of principle. So the questions being asked now is, should the church enter into this particular form of protest and demand, of dramatizing and of action.

I think that those who will be participating in the march essentially as Christians would respond something like this. The march on Washington will take place. It was not originated by the church, though men of Christian orientation have had a large role in its development. The church cannot call it off. It can join in, or it can stand aloof. As Christians, we cannot afford this latter course. The old taunt is still true – Eleven o’clock Sunday morning, or is it10, is the most segregated hour in America. I get rather tired of hearing it, but I know you and I are going to go on hearing it until it is no longer true.

When the march on Washington swings down Independence Avenue the Negro of America is going to be saying to the Church, Are you with us or not? Great numbers of churchmen will fall into stride with them. The event has become a symbol. Jesus said once, He who is not with me is against me. The Negro is saying the same thing today, and the march will be a focus of his question to you and me, the white Christians of his country.

Factually, the Indiana Council of Churches has cooperated with local Negro groups in organizing at least seven integrated bus loads of persons from Indiana. This action is typical. The church will be marching Wednesday.

Question number four – Isn’t this a pressure tactic? The answer, of course, is yes. Martin Luther King argues in this letter from Birmingham Jail – which, said on magazine, we’d better read, because our grandchildren will certainly read it – that the Negro through his organized protests and demands is not creating tension today. He is merely giving effective expression and hope for reform to tension which is already here. Some legislators have said they will resent the pressure applied by the march. Other sympathetic persons wonder whether the pressure of such a demonstration may not harm rather than help the Negro.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that the question of what kind of pressure where and when is the crux of the racial discussions in our country now. It’s a little foolish to decry all pressure. No significant major social change comes without pressure.

The Negro leaders of today keep hammering away on this. You white man there, Remember how you got your vote – pressure on King John in the pleasant fields of Runnymeade, the Magna Carta; pressure on King George in Boston Harbor and Yorktown; you women there – remember how you got your vote – pressure in some of the fieriest public demonstrations of the century. You there in manufacturing – you don’t like pressure in civil rights. How is it different there from pressure in zoning, tax law, or defense contracts? You Mister Congressman, isn’t it a little strange to complain of the pressure of open public demonstration when you stay quiet under the week-in and week-out pressure of local Chambers of Commerce, or unions or medical associations, or veterans.

Yes, the marchers would say, a massive demonstration will exert pressure. It is intended to. But it will be open, orderly pressure of thousands representing millions, asking the nation to be its best self, asking Christians to follow their Lord, asking persons of goodwill to extend not just goodwill but justice. Such pressure is the stuff of social change. We do not shy from it.

When the marchers say this, if indeed they do, they may be wrong. But their error will be in judgment, not in motivation, in strategy, not in principle. A Christ who drove the unjust from the temple, who castigated the hypocrites in public exchange, who challenged the power of structure of his day by open defiance of their regulations, this Christ cannot be appealed to in the name of weak acceptances of justice. The dark-skinned man has lived under pressure from above for 150 years; he is not overly moved by your white horror of pressure from below.

The fifth question follows, But aren’t there better ways of achieving the same goals? I think the marchers would answer yes, again. The march does not stand alone. By itself it sows little. It is a symbol. Yes, indeed, there are better, and absolutely necessary ways of achieving the goals in mind. There are neighborhood ways; there are legislative ways; there are communal ways; there are business ways, and labor ways. There are school ways and church ways. The march alone would be a hollow thing, spectacular but futile. But in so far as it is a symbol of united determination and becomes a symbol of new strides toward freedom; in so far as it forces national attention, and verbalizes legitimate complaints, and stimulates affective change, to that degree it will be a useful means.

Yes, say the marchers. There are better ways, and we hope the march will turn our thinking. One column this week suggested that the mail of Midwesterners against Civil Rights legislation is looming as decisive in the minds of some congressmen. There is a way. One minister and one church the 7th Presbyterian in Chicago became the moving force in a vast southwest side community program of general community betterment, including racially. There is a way. Yes, there are better ways. If you are not sure which ones are the right ways, our question to you is, Which ones are you pursuing?

The last question (only starters these six, I’m sure) What will happen afterward? This of course, is the critical and unanswerable question. The march is not the beginning but only the symbolic focus of a movement that has history and justice on its side. The real grit of the march will be what it stimulates after Wednesday. William Stringfellow, “Protest,” writes a remarkable young Episcopalian attorney, “is only the invitation to reform”. Tens of thousands of people, representing many more that themselves could march as a vent to stored up indignation, or guilt, then go home feeling justified and proud. If that happens the march will have been a travesty. It is more likely that it will serve as a stimulus to thousands to home front progress. Some are saying that the march will result in such intensification of demand that if the Congress fails to provide new specific reform, the nation will be in for increased ugliness and more intense pressures.

I’m sure the Christians who will be a part of the march hope that it may prove to be a fit instrument for moving forward the just and timely demands of brothers and sisters. If it does then the Almighty will smile upon this land and all its people as they are drawn closer to one another and closer to their goal of liberty and justice for all.

Not all of my questions about the march on Washington are answered. I’m sure that is true of you. But enough of them are answered for me that I shall be a part of Wednesday’s demonstration. The Indiana buses leave here Tuesday later afternoon and return Thursday morning. If you are sympathetic with this particular means of exercising an undeniable Christian duty, I solicit your participation in spirit if not in body. If the questions in your mind do not allow you to give your support to this, then I solicit your determination to work in other ways for the same goals. In either case, I solicit your prayers that a mighty attempt to fulfill the law of God and of this land may be used by our Lord according to his wisdom and will.

Rev. Dick Hamilton