*Note: Portions of this post were given at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC on August 23, 2013
One hundred years ago, in 1913, African Americans celebrated the fiftieth year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In respond to the celebration, the AME Church asked Bishop Henry McNeal Turner to write a reflection on the meaning of the Emancipation. However, the selection of Turner was not without problems. At this time, Turner's public persona had shifted from one filled with optimism after the signing of the Emancipation and the Union victory in the Civil War to one filled with pessimism—one that believed America did not hold any promises for African Americans. At the time the church asked him to offer his reflections of the momentous event, Turner found himself out of the mainstream of both American and African American political and social thought. His prophetic rhetoric, of which I talk about in the book, The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition, became more and more pessimistic as black oppression and racism went unabated.
Therefore, it came as a surprised when in 1913, as African Americans celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the AME Church asked him to offer a reflection on the historical event. While this seemed to be another opportunity for Turner to rein down bitter anathemas and criticize the country for not living up to the ideals and principals after the Emancipation, Turner offered an eloquent, moving reflection of the time. Published in the January 1913 edition of the AME Journal, Turner’s “Reminiscences of the Proclamation of Emancipation,” reminded many not only of his legacy and his importance to the AME Church, but also it introduced Turner to a new audience—one that only knew him as pessimistic prophet.
Fifty years later on August 28 in Washington DC, people gathered again in Washington to see their “Emancipation” or have their “great big celebration.” If the March on Washington was anything, it was a great celebration of folks getting together and coming together to rally for rights that many argued the nation should have granted at least one hundred years prior—during the time of the Emancipation.
As we come to our own 50 year celebration, I wonder how will we remember this March? Many have focused much of the “reflection writing” on the March on Washington on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his infamous “I Have a Dream Speech.” Despite the hard work of others in the movement and despite the massive mobilization of over 250,000 from a plethora of people on that day, King’s speech has for many Americans, anchored what we know, or should I say, think we know about the March on Washington. Headlines such as “Remembering the Dream” or “50 Years After the Dream" pop up everywhere to anchor our memory or create a history for us to consume and share with others. Moreover, the more we consume and share this particular narrative, the more we feel that our work, at least the work done in the past is finished.
The embedded narrative of the March on Washington in 1963 is that it was an unqualified success and it has gone down in the annuals of history and public memory as a success. If anything, Americans interpret the March as the “real” starting point in bettering race relations. The March highlighted all that was wrong with America (as if nothing else did before) and through our collective hard word and zeal at getting it right, we stood together to listen to King’s lofty eloquence as the spirit convicted and converted a nation to rise up and do the right thing. Thus, one can read the March as the ultimate symbol of progress; that as a country, we can be on the wrong track, but if just return to the principles of our founding and draw from the well of democracy, we somehow can atone for and be delivered from the sins of yesterday. In short, we will remember the March as Turner remembered the 50th year of the ratifying of the Emancipation Proclamation; despite our pessimistic sensibilities.
However, for some, we will remember this March for what it was not—not the panacea that solved all of our problems. As we see the old wounds festering and becoming infected again; mass incarceration, stop and frisk policies, Stand Your Ground laws, the outright hijacking of voting rights throughout the country; as we talk about unemployment, immigration, the war on women, workers and whoever standing on the right side of history; and a host of other problems; 1963 doesn't seem that far removed. Many of the issues facing Marchers in 1963 are facing Marchers 50 years later in 2013.
Therefore, how should we read the March on Washington? Well as I think we should read and interpret the March on Washington as one big prophetic movement that still goes on today. Moreover, when we see it as a prophetic movement, then we must examine and interpret the religious language that surrounded and undergirded the March and Movement. In simple terms, to speak of the March without noting the God-Talk, in song and oratory, is to miss out on an important part of the day and to many in attendance; the power of the Movement itself.
As a prophetic movement, one that spoke truth to power, we need to remember that when the March on Washington happened, it was not a popular thing to do. City officials did not want it, the US government was frustrated by it, President Kennedy and others tried to stop it, and many people thought it would just caused more trouble. There was infighting, outfighting, shouting matches, cussing and fussing and women were regulated to the margins. It was not perfect; not everything went according to plan, some stuff worked and some didn't and if everybody you meet today who told you they were there was actually there, it would have been over one million people at the March.
In short, we do not need to glorify, deify, magnify or edify the March on Washington, but call it what it was; a people’s prophetic movement that stood up to the powers that be on the day and held the nation accountable—the same thing I am hoping we are doing this time and beyond; sustaining a prophetic movement that will continue to hold the nation accountable to the people.