Ministers lead mass march for moral values in government
Marchers are shown here in front of the Washington Monument on their way to the Department of Justice. | wamu.org

WASHINGTON—Even the nation’s ministers, it seems, have had it up to here with the values, or lack of them, in the halls of government.

And that brought 3,000 of them – at least according to their organizer, the Rev. Al Sharpton – to D.C. on August 28 to proclaim their support for a moral center in the country and to inveigh against political leaders, and some religious leaders, too, who they declare do not provide it.  Thousands more of their congregants joined them in a mass march through the monumental section of downtown D.C.

The march, on the 54th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 March for Jobs and Justice, was billed as non-political. Speakers denounced efforts to defund programs for the poor, suppress the right to vote, evict undocumented people from the U.S., and extend income inequality, among other ills. Several later speakers took specific aim at Republican President Donald Trump.

“We are here today because, for too many, the American Dream is a nightmare,” King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, told the marchers at the end.

“There is a great moral cancer eating away at our democracy in all its forms,” the Rev. Willie Dwayne Francois of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville, N.J., declared after the marchers reached their ultimate goal: the U.S. Justice Department, almost two miles away from their starting point, the D.C. memorial to Dr. King.

“We could not commemorate this day” as the anniversary of King’s march “and face the challenges of today without standing together as Dr. King did 54 years ago,” and as interracial and interfaith campaigners for civil rights did then, Sharpton told a preliminary gathering of Reform Jews.

“We stand today, for voting rights and for other issues” which harm minorities, the poor, the elderly, LGBT people and more, he added.  “When we can see people in the streets with torches in their hands saying ‘Jews will not replace us,’ then it’s time to stand together” against such hatred.

“These are unusual times, and when unusual times take place, men and women of good will come together,” added King. “Today we come together again around jobs and justice,” he told the meeting.

Sharpton’s National Action Network had planned a demonstration with 1,000 clergy even before the Nazi-KKK-white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Va., which killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 other anti-hate demonstrators. But the march quickly expanded in the last week, organizers said.

And they emphasized holding political and religious leaders of all political stripes and faiths responsible for the lack of a moral center in the halls of government and in religious institutions, too.

“The mass media makes the mistake of things this day is just political or partisan,” added the Rev. Jim Wallis, head of Sojourners, the faith-based movement for social justice. “This day is theological. This day is biblical.”

“When I ask my students  ’Have they ever heard racism preached as a sin from the pulpit?’ They say ‘no.’” added Father Bryan Massingale, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, a Catholic institution in New York City.

“This is a day God has given us the power to speak the truth, to hold our elected officials accountable and to make Dr. King’s dream possible,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Jewish Reform sector’s Religious Action Center. Then he blew the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn used as a clarion call to worship during the coming Jewish High Holidays.

Marchers festooned their signs with denunciations of racism and hatred. “Hate has no home here,” read one printed sign, with translations in Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic and Korean. Another man, who said his father and two uncles fought the Nazis, carried a hand-made sign reading: “My relatives died in the Holocaust. I have marched against racism and bigotry all my life. Never again.”

“There’s something inherently wrong” with a system of voter suppression, criminal justice in need of drastic reform, cuts in food stamps and other programs and low wages, imperiled health care and income inequality, Francois said. “Though we were not elected to political positions, we do have the power: We can go to the voting booths and give them pink slips.” Added Government Employees (AFGE) President J. David Cox, the sole unionist to speak: “There is a root of hatred.”

While most speakers denounced the general moral climate, or lack of it, in national politics, several said quite clearly that GOP President Donald Trump is the mover and voice for that racism, reaction, and the lack of moral values.

“Pharaoh had the position, but Moses had the power,” Francois said. “The bus driver” in Birmingham, Ala., in 1956 “had the position, but Rosa Parks had the power” to insist she would never again sit in the back of the bus.

“Donald Trump and (Attorney General) Jeff Sessions have the positions, but we have the power.”

Still another speaker called Trump “a man intoxicated by the aroma of his arrogance and insecurity.” Added that speaker: “We have to be proactive” in pushing back against the president. “We rebel against the insanity of those who try to undermine the dignity of all God’s children.”

While a wide range of religious leaders led the march, one group was notably absent: White evangelical Protestants. The largest Jewish denomination, Reform, marched. So did Catholics of all ages and races, as did African-American Southern and Northern Baptists. Cox led the AFGE delegation. Other unionists were News Guild members, a Teachers staffer and the Jewish Labor Committee’s top two executives.

At the end, the leaders challenged their own congregants to keep the movement going.  “We’re calling men and women out of the silence and challenging them, as Dr. King said, quoting the prophet Amos, ‘Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,’” said the Rev. David Jefferson, of the Metropolitan Baptist Church of Newark, N.J.  “We need to stand with a collective ferocity…It is time to get woke.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of the People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C.   Gruenberg has been editor-in-chief of PAI since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jarvis bureau chief for the Middletown NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for the Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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