United Methodists prepare to remember the Washington March 50 years later

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United Methodists will be speaking, teaching, marching and more as they join in the 50th anniversary celebration of the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington.

The historic event is best known for the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but also built momentum for passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965).

Two major anniversary rallies are planned in Washington, one for Saturday, Aug. 24, and the other for Wednesday, Aug. 28, with President Obama to speak at the latter from the Lincoln Memorial — site of King’s famed address.

The Rev. Kristin Stoneking, a United Methodist elder from the California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference, also is a scheduled speaker for the Aug. 28 event.

Stoneking was longtime United Methodist campus minister at the University of California Davis, and recently became executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace group.

“Dr. King’s legacy of active nonviolence as a path to social change is needed as much now as ever as we witness the polarization of political parties, increased militarization in our culture and persistent challenges related to racism and poverty,” Stoneking said.

Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, is to speak at Saturday’s “National Action to Realize the Dream!” rally, sponsored by the National Action Network and led by Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Winkler said he would stress that “while we have made much progress over the past 50 years, the struggle for peace and freedom is far from over.”

The rally begins at 8 a.m. at the Lincoln Memorial, and a march to the King Memorial will follow.

Among those marching will be Edith Lee-Payne, who attends Hope United Methodist Church in Southfield, Mich., and who as a 12-year-old joined her mother in traveling by bus from Detroit to Washington for the famous march.

Lee-Payne, who chairs the Church and Society committee at her church and also is active in its United Methodist Women group, will be accompanied this time by her two granddaughters.

“My thoughts then were how unfair it was that people were unable to do the things my family could do such as sit anywhere on public transportation, eat at lunch counters, attend school and exist in a society without facing severe consequences,” Lee-Payne told Church and Society’s Wayne Rhodes. “It was unbelievable to me that a few hundred miles made a difference in the way we lived and were treated.”

Other anniversary events are scheduled, including a teach-in at Mount Vernon Place United Church in Washington, on Tuesday, Aug. 27, beginning at 4 p.m. This event, sponsored by the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), carries the title “A Culture of Suspicion: The Criminalization of Race in America.”

Speakers will include the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell, a retired United Methodist pastor and founding member of Black Methodists for Church Renewal.

Caldwell, who has vivid memories of attending the 1963 march, said he will emphasize that the church must respond to “the influential forces that shape our human disposition toward prejudice, bigotry and injustice.”

Asbury United Methodist Church, a historic church in downtown Washington, will have a special worship service at 7 p.m. on Aug. 27. The Rev. Pamela R. Lightsey, associate dean of community life and clinical assistant professor at United Methodist-related Boston University School of Theology, will preach.

“Having grown up in the South during the 1960s, I remember the great appreciation my parents had for Dr. King, and their great sadness at his assassination,” said Lightsey in an MFSA news release. “These many years later, I am happy to be able to participate in these events to commemorate the March on Washington and believe our time together will encourage and inspire the continued work of social justice activism.”

In Process, an African-American women’s a cappella quintet from the Washington, will sing at the Asbury United Methodist service, which is sponsored by MFSA.

At least a few United Methodist groups will travel by bus to Washington for the anniversary events.

The New York Annual (regional) Conference will have buses leaving from five of its churches to go to the Aug. 24 rally.

Some other United Methodist churches and annual conferences have already had local events honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race is featuring a  five-part series in which United Methodists recall the impact that the March on Washington had, and continues to have, on their lives and work.

*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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