Leaders Gone, Now — Who Will Lead the Fight?
This month will be the 57th Anniversary of the March on Washington that took place on August 28, 1963.
It is believed that between 200,000 and 300,000 people participated in the march. The last speaker was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was not on the original program, but because of his recent work during that time, two speakers who were to speak for 10 minutes each gave up their time to let this young pastor speak. That is when he gave the iconic speech called the “I Have A Dream” speech.
It is interesting to note according to Dr. King’s own writing that he did not plan to talk about his “Dream.” He originally had several versions of the speech; one was called, “Normalcy, Never Again!” He had spoke about his “Dream” in Chicago, Ill., and one of the participants who heard him speak in Chicago was also present in Washington, D.C. She said “Tell them about your ‘Dream,’ Martin, tell them about your ‘Dream!'” Then he said from memory, “I have a Dream …”
That participant was none other than Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel at the time. She was someone who was already famous and held in great esteem based on her own musical legacy. She sang directly before Dr. King spoke, then she changed history by encouraging him to tell others about his “dream” on that national stage.
This was not Mahalia Jackson’s (1911-1972), first involvement with Dr. King. She worked with him, Rosa Parks, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, better known as the SCLC, and the Civil Rights Movement during the bus boycott, in Montgomery, Alabama and around the country. Many believed she was Dr. King’s favorite opening act. It was Dr. King’s request that was the reason for her singing that day the song, “How I Got Over.”
It is interesting that he felt comfortable requesting special songs from her, and she felt comfortable requesting special speeches from him. If you ever watched the speech on film or YouTube, you can see that Dr. King stops reading a prepared speech and starts improvising. He looks up and says, “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream …”
The purpose of the March on Washington was to create a light on the political, legal, and social struggles in America in order to gain full citizenship rights for Black Americans and to achieve racial equality. It is believed to have been the largest demonstration for human rights in United States history. The march also demonstrated a rare unity among civil rights organizations. The march was a mile long on the National Mall to the Memorial.
The three-hour program at the Lincoln Memorial included speeches from civil rights and religious leaders and featured several celebrities and musicians. The march ended with a meeting between the march leaders and President John F. Kennedy at the White House. President Kennedy was originally against the march because of his concerns about violence. The good news is that no violent acts were reported that day.
The “Big Six” who were the leaders were put together by A. Phillip Randolph, who came up with the original idea and proposed the march. The other five were: Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Whitney Young Jr. of the National Urban League; Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); James Farmer of the Conference of Racial Equality (CORE); and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It is said that they only had two months to plan and put together what turned out to be the largest nonviolent peaceful march in U.S. history.
Last month on July 17, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia, the last speaker and one of the Big Six in the 1963 March on Washington went on to his reward. He was the youngest speaker on that day. He was born outside Troy, Alabama. When he was young, he said it was his goal to preach the gospel. He wanted to be a minister, but the only congregation he could get together was his family livestock. With the help of his family they would gather all of the chickens in the yard and he would preach to them. He said in one speech that the problem with chickens as members is, they never said “Amen” to anything he said.
His favorite teacher told him “Read, my child. Read.” He followed her instruction and he tried to read everything he could. His parents could not afford to get the local newspaper, but his grandfather did. His grandfather would save the newspapers and he would come pick them up and read each and every one. When he was 15, he read about a woman named Rosa Parks, who was involved in a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.
The actions of Rosa Parks and the words of Dr. King inspired him to try to change his local community in Troy. When he graduated two years later, he wrote a letter to Dr. King, who was at that time a minister in Atlanta, at his father’s church. Dr. King wrote back to John Lewis and included with the letter a bus ticket to Montgomery and an invitation to meet him. John Lewis went in March 1958 when he was 18 years old. He traveled the 50 miles by Greyhound. Fred Gray, Dr. King’s lawyer, and Rosa Parks picked him up at the bus station and drove him to the First Baptist Church where he met Dr. King.
Young Lewis said he was so scared, “I didn’t know what to say or what to do.” Dr. King said, “Are you the boy from Troy?” That became his nickname while he worked with Dr. King in the Civil Rights Movement and was arrested, jailed and beaten for his efforts.
All of these leaders are gone to their reward. Who will be the next to pick up the mantle and fight for justice?
Cummings is pastor of Bethlehem Temple in Wheeling and Shiloh Apostolic Faith Assembly in Weirton.