By Lamar Bailey, Director of the Institute Justice Team
When I look around our nation and our world, I am often overwhelmed and sometimes feel hopeless. Yet we each have a role to play in making the world a better place. In 1963, the prospects for Black Americans were bleak, which led civil rights leaders to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of that historic march, which served as a catalyst for change and where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave one of his most famous speeches, I am reminded that it has never just been about charismatic leaders but about individuals working for change.
I have come to greatly admire A. Philip Randolph, whose work in the 1940s is credited as one of the inspirations for the 1963 march, and he was the first speaker that day. Randolph believed that economic rights were the key to advancing civil rights, and that there could be no end to racial oppression without economic justice. Any talk of freedom without gaining economic freedom was a façade. As Dr. King said in 1967, “We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together. And you can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the other.”
Randolph did not come from great privilege or an educated family. The son of a preacher, he grew up Black and poor in a racially violent context. He was not very charismatic nor was he a fantastic speaker. However, he had amazing gifts for organizing, strategy, focus, and relationship building. In 1941, he said, “…be not dismayed by these terrible times. You possess power, great power. Our problem is to harness and hitch it up for action on the broadest, daring and most gigantic scale.”
It is easy to lose hope, when children go to school hungry, cities don’t have clean drinking water, immigrants are entrapped by floating barrels covered by barbed wire in the Rio Grande River, poor people and people of color are still being murdered by law enforcement, hate groups continue to gain power, the ongoing climate crisis feels so vast, and the military budget continues to explode while the working poor do not make enough money to consistently pay rent and put food on the table.
When I am anxious or exhausted amid the overwhelming weight of these events, I often look for a quick solution that will fix all the world’s problems and put the country on the right path: a charismatic leader, new technology, a piece of legislation or even a new scientific breakthrough. While these efforts can have an important impact, we can’t rely only on them alone. As people of faith, we are taught that if we come together with resolve and solidarity we can disrupt and overcome unjust systems and address their root causes.
On August 28, 1963, ordinary people gathered in Washington, D.C. seeking jobs that would allow them to put food on the table and afford dignified housing. They did not have a lot of money or power, but they did have a burning passion for justice, and they showed up to demand it. In solidarity, they gave the world a hopeful vision of what could be. Together they created a movement that personally changed my life and the entire world.
As a Black American I believe deeply in the commitments of Randolph and the people who showed up that day. I come from a long line of working-class folks: janitors, factory workers, storekeepers who also served their faith communities as pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, musicians, and choir directors. I myself worked in a factory for many years as a young adult.
Movements for justice are perhaps the most powerful tool against injustice, and Randolph galvanized a movement for justice for all people. He reminds us that we do not have to possess special gifts and talents; what we each have is enough. We all have the capacity to bring people together and show up. When we all show up with our gifts and talents in our neighborhoods or in the center of power in Washington, D.C., we play a part in moving our nation and the world closer to liberation for all people. Join the Sisters of Mercy on August 26 when we again march for justice and demonstrate mercy and hope.