WASHINGTON – On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy was honored by hundreds in the nation’s capital with a rally to end what participants said was systemic racism in the United States.
Organized by the National Council of the Churches of Christ, the Rally to End Racism drew hundreds to the National Mall for interfaith prayer services for speeches on racial inequality. Though advertised as a non-denominational event, it was predominantly attended by Christians.
“Everything Dr. King dreamed for us is in the realm of human possibility,” actor Donald Glover told the crowd. “Our humanity was enough in the world for Dr. King.”
But, he added, “none of us can say with any deep honesty that Dr. King would be satisfied if he were here with us today.”
The event, known as the “A.C.T. (Awaken, Confront, Transform) to End Racism,” asked participants to reject the systemic racism that “continues to exploit” minority communities, said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a Protestant minister, chair of the NAACP Legislative Political Action Committee and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Ben and Jerry’s co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, religious and community leaders, music artists and Deray McKesson, an activist and host of the podcast “Pod Save America” were among those who helped to commemorate King’s life and unfinished legacy.
Speakers addressed a wide array of issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement, education, mass incarceration, police brutality, the war on drugs, housing and gentrification, voting rights, and the “continuing segregation of our churches, which adds to our complicity,” Rev. Jim Wallis said. Wallis founded the Christian social justice organization the Sojourners, a religious community from Illinois.
“Our sins nailed Christ to the cross … our sins past, present, and future,” Wallis said. “Today, we confess the sins of white colonialism, and white racism helped nail Jesus Christ to the cross. This is our confession during this holy season.”
“Confession is good for the soul … but once confession is made, there is work to do, there is a battle to fight,” Emmy-winning hip-hop artist and pastor Julian Deshazier told the gathering. “There is no area of life in this nation that is untouched by racism. There is nothing in this nation that is not touched and affected by racism. We must understand the insidious nature of racism, how it manifests in everyday life.”
Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, contended that Christianity is complicit in oppression against African Americans.
“I’m tired of talk. I’m tired of all the promises … I’m here because the church that I serve has been complicit in the history of racism,” Nelson said. “It is time for us to start truly carrying the strength of a community against racism.”
Public schools have failed minority students, who find themselves with “an absence of possibility,” after years being neglected by teachers and poor school districts, Nelson said.
“We must not ask ‘how’ to unity and reconciliation,” said Rev. Dr. Jennifer Harvey, author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. “Our own history makes clear that that’s not the question our brothers and sisters of color have been asking,” referencing a number of incidents since 1960 in which white churches failed to fight for equality.
“They’ve not been asking for more togetherness. They’ve been organizing and insisting on justice,” Harvey said.
Harvey asked white people how they were fighting to end oppression, and criticized the Trump administration for continued attack on minorities.
“Dear white Christians: now what?” Harvey asked. “It feels right to stand in this place just minutes away from a very, very White House. Muslims are being banned. Latino families are being terrorized. … It feels good to be here because the gospel calls us here.”
King’s focus on economic justice was a central theme of the event.
“There is this myth that the government isn’t responsible for wealth disparity and therefore isn’t responsible for fixing it,” Cohen said. “The shape of our world then and now isn’t an accident. They are a result of deliberate government policy.”
“If Jerry and I had been black, there never would have been Ben and Jerry’s,” Cohen said. “The point isn’t that there would be no Cherry Garcia or Chunky Monkey. The point is there are millions of black and brown people who have been screwed.”
President Trump declared April 4 to be “a day to honor Dr. King’s legacy,” and urged Americans in a proclamation to “do their part to make Dr. King’s dreams of peace, unity, and justice a reality.”