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The 1963 March on Washington
SERMON DELIVERED BY REV. ROBERT WEST at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York on September 8, 1963. This was Rev. Robert West's first sermon at First Unitarian in Rochester.
Late on a Sunday afternoon, five weeks ago, my family and I drove into Rochester to begin our life here with you—a life we anticipate will be one of fruitfulness and meaning as we live these years together seeking mutual growth and understanding, years which indeed have been inaugurated by a spirit of genuine hospitality and warmth for which our family is deeply appreciative.
During those weeks in August, as my thoughts were on this service today , I felt it would be well to talk this morning about our relationship and perhaps share some of my thoughts concerning why we are here as a congregation , thoughts about what it means to be a Unitarian today.
However, some ten days ago I participated in an event which caused me to postpone my intended remarks to a Sunday in the future. That event was the Washington March of August 28—an event I believe will prove to be of profound significance in the history of our nation and in our own lives. That day—August 28—is one which long will be recalled in future years and generations.
However, in spite of voluminous newspaper accounts, in spite of extensive television news coverage, in spite of attempts by those who were present to describe verbally the occasion, I believe it is impossible to convey what truly happened on that day in Washington. I believe it is impossible to describe in all its dimension and depth and fullness what actually occurred under the hot sun amidst the throng surrounding the calm waters reflecting Lincoln's Memorial. All that happened there to one who participated is indescribable, inexpressible. Like most of the deeply significant moments in our lives no amount of words or description can convey the event itself. We can talk about it, attempt to analyse it and portray its possible ramifications and effects in our lives—but knowledge of the moment itself, what truly happened among the persons creating that moment , escapes adequate communication. And so, even as I would spend these few minutes this morning in talking with you about that of August 28, I must begin by saying to you that I cannot possibly hope to communicate all that day was or all it meant in the lives of the people who were there.
As most of you probably are aware, the Washington March was organized by leaders of major civil rights organizations for Americans to indicate support of and petition Congress for legislation to remedy the inferior position accorded Negro citizens in most of our nation. Specifically, the objectives of the march included legislation involving equal voting rights, equal access to public accommodations, desegregation of public schools, alleviation of housing discrimination, and equal employment opportunity. Negroes are seeking to obtain the rights and freedom guaranteed to them one hundred years ago by the Emancipation Proclamation and almost two hundred years ago by the Constitution of the United States—rights and freedoms which they still do not have today.
Through the March, Negroes were attempting to demonstrate that Negroes, supported by thousands of white Americans, want those rights and freedoms now. They want them now and are prepared to do what is necessary to achieve them now.
This was the setting as the day of August 28 dawned in Washington. The sun was hot—although an occasional cloud and warm breezes brought frequent respite from the usual oppressive summer heat of the city.
On the night before the march, the Chief of Police estimated that only 70,000 marchers would enter Washington—but at 2:30 p.m. the next day, he stated that the number of marchers at the Lincoln Memorial totaled approximately 210,000. There was no violence, no unseemly behavior by the throng. There was pleasantness, there was quiet enthusiasm, restrained determination, obvious confidence, magnificent control—self-control on the part of that great mass of people. It was clear to anyone on the scene that these were a people who truly had seen a great light—a light that would not be extinguished by any calamity or rush of wind—a people who will not turn back—who know what they want and will move until they reach their goal, a goal supported by their religion and promised by the constitution of their nation.
Reliable sources estimated that from 20 to 30 percent of the marchers were white. Thousands of the marchers never got to walk down Constitution Avenue, but were directed to walk across the lawns and along the lanes of trees between Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Television cameras were situated at poor locations and thus failed to give home viewers an accurate impression of the great expanse of humanity hidden by those trees, an expanse which overflowed into the parks surrounding the Memorial—even beyond reach of the powerful sound system.
I was proud that this church sent some of its members as participants in the March. I walked in a group of one thousand Unitarians and Universalists massed together as a unit. It is known that there were at least 700 more Unitarians and Universalists included in delegations from individual cities. I felt privileged to spend that day on the Mall in the company of Unitarian ministers from Birmingham, New Orleans, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Nashville, Oak Ridge, and Lynchburg—as well as from the North, Midwest, and California.
It was difficult to suppress a lump in one's throat as a hundred and fifty Negroes from Albany, Georgia marched by and later 300 from Alabama and a group from Clarksdale, Mississippi and Wilmington, North Carolina and Danville, Virginia—places known for jailings and brutality and the perseverance of their Negro citizens.
There were all kinds of people present—all occupations –all colors—all religions—all ages. They came together from al l corners of our nation, united in a common purpose. They walked to their appointed places, they ate lunch, they talked with one another, they sang, they listened to speeches, and they returned home—glad they had come—confirmed in the rightness of their cause—convinced of the effectiveness in their peaceful method—inspired for the work ahead.
In the days and weeks before August 28, some newspapers in the North and the South (and Rochester) made their distorted contribution to this effort by issuing dire predictions of violence and harm, and even went so far as to urge that people not participate and that the march be cancelled. They stated that the march was a bad thing, was ill conceived, extremely dangerous, and would come to no good. To this, I would reply that any newspaper faking such a position is out of touch with what is truly happening in the area of civil rights in our nation today. Such a newspaper does not have its finger on the pulse of what is going on in the movement of American Negroes to gain equal opportunity as American citizens. Such newspapers are not informed as to the true nature of the civil rights movement today in this country. I think the demonstration itself proved this. To Northern newspapers who take such a negative position concerning the March, I would say that they are playing into the hands of the very Southern politicians whom they profess to condemn elsewhere in their columns.
Such Northern newspapers are parroting the same line as the Southern newspapers controlled by segregationist politicians. In addition, such a negative attitude in the press has the effect of encouraging violence—a game which Southern papers and politicians have played for many years. In short, I am saying that, in my opinion, the kind of anti-demonstration campaign waged by some Northern newspapers is misinformed—sings the same tune as segregationist newspapers and politicians—and encourages violence.
I think the March in Washington on August 28 was a tremendous success.
I cannot conceive of a way in which it could have been more successful. No one expected any congressman to state that he had changed his vote as a result of the March. I believe that August 28 will have an effect on the civil rights bill now before Congress. I believe August 28 is a milestone in the history of civil rights in this country and will aid Negroes in their move toward equal opportunity as American citizens. I believe the attention of the American population was focused on Washington and on the current condition of Negro citizens. Congress is on the spot. The judiciary has done some of its part. The executive branch of government has done some of its part. Congress has done virtually nothing—and it is now up to Congress to act. I believe that, because of August 28, more favorable public opinion will be registered from home districts and the chances of passage of civil rights legislation will be increased.
There are some who do not wish to see such demonstrations, who do not wish to be reminded of the hard realities of life, who would like to sweep the matter of civil rights under the familiar rug woven of patriotic slogans, professed good will and surface brotherhood. But on August 28, it was stated once and for all that civil rights can no longer be swept under the rug—that Negro leaders will no longer be satisfied until members of their race are accepted as human beings and as American citizens—which they are not today. There is no doubt about the need for the civil rights legislation now before Congress. As Roy Wilkins stated, that legislation represents so moderate an approach that if any provision is weakened or eliminated the remainder will be little more than sugar water.
And yet, there will be attempts to weaken the legislation and render it ineffective, especially that provision dealing with admission to those places serving the general public. This is a key point of the bill and it should be supported. Its opponents attack it on the grounds of so—called "property rights". In reply, I would mention two facts—one, it already is established as a general principle in law that when a person opens a business to the general public, certain obligations and responsibilities are incurred in the interest of the general welfare, and, two, if I have learned anything during the past seven years in the me for desegregation, it is that the individual businessman is protected when al l businessmen desegregate. When everyone serving the public desegregates, then the individual businessman is not a victim of discrimination, he is not exposed, he does not suffer. There has been learned through past years of painful negotiation in the South for desegregation of lunch counters, hospitals, theaters, and restaurants. If everyone desegregates, the individual businessman is not hurt. Regardless of our political party, we should support this provision of the pending civil rights legislation.
I do not believe this country will be the same after August 28—for that great host gathered in Washington was not the culmination of the movement for equal rights. No, it was not the culmination. Instead, those people gathered there were the “advance guard” of a moral revolution which is in process. Those people gathered there returned to their communities—returned with a conviction that cannot be dampened,—a conviction and a determination to carry on and further the movement until success is a reality—not a promise.
A share of the responsibility for the success of this movement in our land rests upon you and upon me—upon every person in this room. I t is a movement in the highest traditions of our nation, of Unitarian religion, and of this congregation. May each of us have the courage and take the time to do our part.
August 28 was the day on which the question was put squarely before the American people and their Congress—a quest ion of performance versus pious professions—a question of hypocrisy versus American ideals—a question of false promises versus actual achievement.
On August 28, an immediate question was asked of the American people and Congress—the same question ringing through two thousand years: What person among you, if a man ask for bread, will give him a stone?