Marking historic milestones in the pursuit of justice, NCC calls for renewed commitments to racial harmony
August 21, 2013 – Looking back on two landmark events in the pursuit of racial justice in the United States, the National Council of Churches Governing Board has called on its “member communions and partners, persons of faith, and persons of good will … to renew our personal and institutional commitments to racial justice and harmony.”
In a resolution commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march on Washington, the Council pointed out that churches and religious groups have been advocating racial and human justice long before the U.S. won its independence.
“We join in prayer to our loving God to lead us to live with one another as Jesus taught us: not as strangers who shrink from one another in fear, but as neighbors who reach out to one another with empathy and compassion,” the Governing Board said in the resolution entitled, “Pursuing the Dream.”
The resolution traced church commitments to racial equality throughout the long history of the U.S.
“Abraham Lincoln was still a country lawyer in Illinois when U.S. churches formed abolition societies,” the resolution declares. “The immediate emancipation of slaves in the United States was always an urgent moral issue for U.S. Christians. Indeed, church abolitionist movements predate the birth of Lincoln and the United States itself.”
But the dream of racial justice has not been fully realized in the U.S., even after the election of an African American president, the resolution acknowledged. The NCC statement cited the vast national divisions following the Florida murder of an unarmed black teen-ager and the acquittal of the accused shooter.
The resolution also quoted NCC President Kathryn Lohre: “We are reminded that racism is alive and well. We have seen this in the Supreme Court’s recent invalidation of parts of the Voting Rights Act and now in the shocking impunity granted by a Florida jury to a man who stalked and killed a black child.”
The resolution called on churches to “repent of our failings to live with one another as God commanded, that is, with unconditional love for God and our neighbors, whoever they may be.”
The full text of the resolution follows:
Pursuing the Dream
The National Council of Churches Commemorates
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963
The Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863
Abraham Lincoln was still a country lawyer in Illinois when U.S. churches formed abolition societies. The immediate emancipation of slaves in the United States was always an urgent moral issue for U.S. Christians.
Indeed, church abolitionist movements predate the birth of Lincoln and the United States itself.
John Woolman, a Quaker, recorded his horror of slavery in his journal, published posthumously in 1774. “Where the Innocent suffer under hard-hearted Men, even unto Death, and the Channels of Equity are so obstructed, that the Cause of the Sufferers in not judged in Righteousness, the Land is polluted with Blood,” he wrote, citing Numbers 35:33. “Where Blood hath been shed unrighteously, and remains unattoned for, the Cry thereof is very piercing.”
Declaring the “abiding love of Christ,” Woolman condemned the slave trade and called on its practitioners to repent: “We feel a Tenderness in our Hearts toward our Fellow Creatures entangled in oppressive Customs; and a Concern so to walk that our Conduct may not be a Means of strengh’ning them in Error.”
Long before the Emancipation Proclamation, the forerunners of many member communions of the National Council of Churches opposed the slave trade. In the 1840’s, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in the North split with their Southern branches over the issue of whether Christians should own slaves.
While abolitionism remained a minority movement in Northern churches and African Americans were rarely treated equally in church gatherings, powerful voices raised in opposition to slavery captured the national imagination.
Best known among white abolitionists were Presbyterian Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whom Lincoln called the woman whose book “started this great war,” Episcopalian (later Unitarian) Julia Ward Howe, whose “Battle Hymn of the Republic” inspired millions in the cause of emancipation, Congregationalist Theodore Dwight Weld, whose fiery sermons kept many abolitionists from deserting their controversial and occasionally dangerous cause, and Presbyterian radical Gerrit Smith, who helped organize the “Underground Railroad” that protected runaway slaves on their way to freedom in Canada.
African American abolitionists whose faith inspired the drive to emancipation included Methodist Isabella Baumfree (Sojourner Truth), whose advocacy for African Americans continued long after the Civil War,and AME Zion lay preacher Frederick Douglass, whose autobiography about his life as a slave and scores of articles in The Liberator inspired abolitionists to remain stalwart in their struggle. Douglass actively supported women’s suffrage after the Civil War.
Historians differ as to whether President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 as a political and military tactic to win support for the Union, or as a moral and religious declaration. Clearly he was sustained by the knowledge that churches and moral leaders throughout the land would support his action. And once the decision had been made – as viewers of the movie Lincoln know – Abraham Lincoln campaigned furiously for the passage of the 13th Amendment that forbade slavery forever.
The National Council of Churches celebrates the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation because it was a righteous turning point in U.S. history, and because so many of our ancestors played a crucial role in its realization.
Yet the Council also acknowledges that the Emancipation did not open doors of equality or opportunity for African Americans or other persons of color in the United States.
The decades after Lincoln freed the slaves saw the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, enclaves of strict segregation in the Jim Crow South as well as in the North, lynching of blacks, and inflexible systems of discrimination throughout the country.
During this same period, the U.S. government declared unofficial war on freedom- seeking bands of Native Americans, sometimes leading to bloody encounters such as the massacre at Wounded Knee, S. Dak., on December 29, 1890, when the U.S. 7th Cavalry killed 300 Lakota children, women, and men.
At the same time, persons of color and members of ethnic groups deemed undesirable by society were systematically barred from immigration into the U.S., or denied equal opportunities for housing, employment, and education.
While many persons of faith sought to correct these injustices, the causes never attracted the numbers or inspired the moral fervor of the abolitionist movement.
The first half of the twentieth century was a cruel and painful period for African Americans in all parts of the United States. Efforts to enact federal laws to punish lynching were resisted by Southern senators as threats to states’ rights.
In addition, there are many not yet old who remember the humiliation of segregated hotels, restaurants, swimming pools, drinking fountains, trains, buses, and other public accommodations.
Again, many in the churches protested these injustices, but the causes did not ignite the national imagination.
Then on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala. bus to a white passenger. Parks’ subsequent arrest enraged black citizens of Montgomery. Citizens formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and named a young Baptist pastor as the association’s president. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a mass boycott of the Montgomery bus system.
The boycott captured national attention. In New York, American Baptist Dr. R.H. Edwin Espy, then associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches, sent a check to the MIA to support its efforts to provide transportation for the bus boycotters. No one remembers the amount of the check, but Espy’s initiative was a first step toward a nationwide swell of church support for what would become known as the Civil Rights Movement. After 13 months, the Montgomery boycott ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated public transportation to be illegal.
Seven years after Martin Luther King, Jr. came to national attention, an assemblage of church, labor, business, and civil rights groups organized a national march to call attention to racial injustices that faced the nation. Now widely known as the “I Have a Dream” march on Washington because of King’s famous phrase, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held a century after the Emancipation Proclamation on August 28, 1963.
A quarter of a million people attended the march. The Rev. Andrew Young, a United Church of Christ minister who was a member of the youth ministry staff of the National Council of Churches and later President of the NCC, was an organizer of the March.
“The March took a movement everyone thought was a southern problem, and they thought it was a black problem, and they took it to the nation’s capital and they realized it was everyone’s problem,” Young told a group of young students earlier this year.
The March attracted thousands of church leaders – clergy and laity, black and white – from all over the nation. It was the clarion call of the civil rights movement. It was a universal reminder that, as Martin Luther King said, the ideals of U.S. democracy and the Emancipation Proclamation had not yet been realized.
“One hundred years later,” Dr. King said, “the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
The National Council of Churches and its member communions were integral planners and participants in the March. Among the church leaders called to the White House at the close of the March was the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, a Presbyterian, former NCC President, and general secretary of the World Council of Churches. Blake remembered President Kennedy’s greeting when the leaders were ushered into the Oval Office: “I have a dream.”
The National Council of Churches celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom because it was a righteous turning point in U.S. history, and because so many of our leaders played a crucial role in its realization.
Yet, a half-century later, we are particularly mindful of Dr. King’s prophetic declaration that the ideals of the march are not completely realized.
In November 1984, the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches issued words of caution in its policy statement on Racial Justice:
“… despite the significant involvement of some Christian denominations in attempting to combat racism, racial injustice still continues in both the church and society. Christians must no longer assume that racial justice is a matter of overcoming individual attitudes and personal bigotry, nor that well-intentioned and non-racist attitudes can, in and of themselves, effectively eliminate racism. Christians must acknowledge that, despite their good intentions, religious and societal structures, institutions and systems can and do perpetuate racism.”
In addition to the NCC’s ongoing programs for racial and human justice, the Special Commission for the Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast was formed immediately after Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. The massive destruction in the wake of the storm revealed the desperate poverty in which the residents, chiefly African American, had been forced to live. Over the years, the Council’s Racial Justice Working Group has advocated programs to alleviate the crushing effects of racism in the U.S. and elsewhere.
It is with deep pain that the National Council of Churches acknowledges that racial biases, misunderstandings, slights, and slurs take place, deliberately and unintentionally, in all the offices, neighborhoods, schools, stores, factories, and churches of our land.
It is painful because we’d prefer to look back on the fifty years since the March on Washington and say society has improved since then.
We tell ourselves it was unthinkable in 1963 that, in the early 21st century, an African American would twice be elected President of the United States.
Yet we must acknowledge that racism persists.
In this anniversary year, following the acquittal of the man accused of the second-degree murder of an unarmed African American teenager, President Obama felt it necessary to explain to the American people what African Americans were feeling about it.
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son,” Mr. Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
National Council of Churches President Kathryn Lohre issued the following statement shortly before Mr. Obama spoke:
“In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal of the murder of Trayvon Martin, the National Council of Churches joins other people of faith and conscience in a renewed call for racial justice.
“This summer as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we are reminded that racism is alive and well,” Lohre said. “We have seen this in the Supreme Court’s recent invalidation of parts of the Voting Rights Act and now in the shocking impunity granted by a Florida jury to a man who stalked and killed a black child …
“The day after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin,” Lohre said, “we acknowledged ‘the tragic reality that exists for young men of color and their families who, because of their appearance, fear they will be victims of violence at the hands of police and others.’ As we seek to honor the memory of Trayvon Martin, we are called to action to protect the lives of all from fear, violence, racism, and injustice.” 
Now, therefore, the National Council of Churches Governing Board celebrates two historic anniversaries in our national life: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
We celebrate the ideals expressed by both of these events, including:
The equality of all human beings created by God, and the right of all people to justly experience God’s blessings, challenges, and opportunities;
The right of all God’s children to live in safety and security without fear of one another due to differences in race, ethnicity, or national origin.
We repent of our failings to live with one another as God commanded, that is, with unconditional love for God and our neighbors, whoever they may be.
We call on all National Council of Churches member communions and partners, persons of faith, and persons of good will to take advantage of this historic opportunity to renew our personal and institutional commitments to racial justice and harmony.
We join in prayer to our loving God to lead us to live with one another as Jesus taught us: not as strangers who shrink from one another in fear, but as neighbors who reach out to one another with empathy and compassion.