On Aug. 28, 1963, at the historic “March on Washington,” Washington Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle addressed these words to the 300,000 Americans of diverse races who rallied together for civil and economic rights for African Americans: “(God) bless this nation and all its people. May the warmth of your love replace the coldness that springs from prejudice and bitterness. Give strength to our government leaders so that just laws may be administered without discrimination.”
Fifty years to the day after Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the Archdiocese of New Orleans commemorated the event with a prayer service on the steps of Notre Dame Seminary.
Archdiocesan prayer service
Archbishop Gregory Aymond gathered with Auxiliary Bishop Shelton Fabre, former Archbishop Alfred Hughes and retired Auxiliary Bishop Dominic Carmon, civic leaders, educators, students and others to thank God for King’s dream because it coincided with Jesus’ dream for all people, created equal, to live in freedom and unity without division and discord.
“He had a dream … about the equality of all people,” Archbishop Aymond said. “It was about freedom. It was about being able to give jobs, regardless of race or color or culture. His dream was to rid this world of racism and prejudice and hatred.
“Martin Luther King not only had a dream but also had the courage, and he had the guts to go to the streets and make that dream public.”
While much progress has been made since that dream speech, there is more to do, Archbishop Aymond said. He directed a question, especially to the young, about who was going to be that voice for justice and equality today in the “New Battle of New Orleans” against violence, murder and racism.
“Us,” they screamed.
“You and I together must speak the same message as Dr. Martin Luther King,” Archbishop Aymond said. “We must say that we want to rid ourselves of violence, murder and racism. We want this to be a peaceful city.”
Still short of dream
“We have not yet fully realized the dream of Jesus and Martin Luther King,” the archbishop added, referring to voting rights, housing and poverty, education and unemployment, profiling, massive incarceration that challenge us today. “If we truly say that we are the followers of Jesus, we must be that voice today.”
Bishop Fabre rallied the crowd by excerpting from King’s historic speech: “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.”
In a rousing closing, King proclaimed: “I have a dream today (that) the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. … With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
“With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God Almighty, We are free at Last.”
March attracted all
Corinne Barnwell, now 76, was a young, white civil rights activist who grew up as a privileged child of a doctor in California but was living in Washington, D.C., in 1963 and attended the march. Even though she had been involved in previous marches and letter-writing campaigns‚ – wanting “to do something for God in my lifetime” – Barnwell said she was inspired being among hundreds of thousands of people of all races who joined hands to sing, “We Shall Overcome,” as they marched to the Lincoln Memorial.
That day impelled her to fight harder for the equality of all Americans.
“It completely changed my life,” said Barnwell, who has an undergraduate degree in history from Harvard and a graduate degree in Latin American studies from the University of California-Berkeley. “I felt called to work to overcome violence and segregation. … That became my mission that day.”
She worked in the civil rights movement for a number of years and was a teacher in Mississippi during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 and then moved to Mississippi to help run a medical committee for human rights. She later attended Tulane University to study social work and then taught it there.
Barnwell was a social worker for 30 years and a human rights coordinator for seven years during Mayor Dutch Morial’s administration. She also said she was among the first Head Start teachers in New Orleans. She is the wife of Episcopal minister William Barnwell, also a human rights activist.
Society has changed
Bishop Carmon echoed Archbishop Aymond’s words that we have come a long way but still have a ways to go, especially in education.
Bishop Carmon, now 82, said in 1946 when he attended the seminary at St. Augustine in Bay St. Louis, it was one of few seminaries in the United States accepting African Americans. That began to change a few years later.
He was ordained a priest in the Society of the Divine Word at the seminary and said he missed the civil rights movement in the United States because he was a missionary priest in New Guinea during that time. He returned to the United States in 1969 to a country that had changed tremendously.
“For me, the main thing was integration,” he said. “All ‘colored’ and ‘white’ signs (in restaurants, on fountains, etc.) were gone, and you could go any place. What really struck me was that you could go to any restaurant and eat. It was a whole new way of life.”
Josephite Father Anthony Bozeman, St. Raymond-St. Leo the Great pastor, was only 3 at the time of the original march. He viewed the march as an ecumenical event that brought together people of varying faiths and races who realized the inequality of rights among Americans.
Now 53 and a historian, Father Bozeman felt compelled to take part in the 50th anniversary events in Washington, D.C.
“The March on Washington was a watershed moment in the history of America and for our church, too,” Father Bozeman said, mentioning Archbishop O’Boyle’s invocation at the 1963 march. “I felt that I had to be there to get a modern-day feel of what it must have been like in 1963.
“While we have made some strides, we have a long way to go. The George Zimmerman verdict, the Voting Rights bill has been chopped by the Supreme Court and, in Pennsylvania, where I am from, they are trying to disenfranchise black voters. As much as we can celebrate the strides we have made, we have work to do.”
Father Bozeman called history cyclical.
“We still need jobs, and we are still fighting for the right to vote,” he said.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is Catholic, was in Washington, D.C., to speak to President Obama the day before the anniversary event. As he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where King gave his speech, Landrieu imagined how the people united 50 years ago, compelled by the civil rights movement, their hearts and the need to change the world.
“We can honor the great progress that we have made and try to find the courage we need to do the hard things that are before us today,” he said.
Landrieu asked the young people of today if they will be the giants on whose shoulders future generations would stand.
Among the students attending the Aug. 28 rally were girls from St. Mary’s Academy, a traditionally African-American high school, who said they’d been discussing in class the march, civil rights and continuing discrimination.
“I think there is much more acceptance (today) even through we haven’t fully achieved it,” St. Mary’s senior Darian Vining said. “We are getting closer to the dream that Martin Luther King had and other Freedom Riders had that we can all be equal instead of separate.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.