50th Anniversary of March on Washington: Remembering My Father

I had a family commitment and could not be in Washington DC this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for civil rights.  Instead, I found myself at my family home in Vermont, remembering being here with my mother as my father headed to DC for that historic march.  Serendipitously, I dug up his sermons from that time, where he speaks to the moment, a conflicted church, and the movement.

My father, Charles A. Barton, was a pastor in the New York Annual Conference.   At the time of the March he was pastor of First United Methodist Church of Jamaica, Queens, an all-white church that was divided, but mostly fearful of the civil rights movement, fearful that Blacks might join the congregation, resistant to change, and opposed to “getting involved.”  Jamaica itself was divided between Black and White communities with a rigid demarcation along Parsons Boulevard.  While actively supporting civil rights organizing in the South, my father saw his primary mission as converting this congregation.  In a June 1963 sermon, “Christ, the Church, and Race,” he quoted the Methodist Social Creed, which affirmed the right to “choose a home, enter a school, secure employment, vote or join a church,” regardless of race, yet noted that “many Methodist Churches discouraged membership by Negroes, and many Methodists are in the forefront of movements to keep Negroes out of schools, housing and job opportunities that they want for themselves.  We do not have to go down South to find examples of this sort of thing.   Two pastors in this Conference were asked to leave their churches because they signed open housing covenants.  One minister who recently admitted a Negro family to his church was asked by the chairman of the Official Board why he had dared to do such a thing.  The minister replied that he thought it was what Christ would have done.  The Chairman replied “When it comes to a choice between Christ and keeping the Church pure, Christ has got to go.”  This sounds almost bizarre when put so bluntly, and yet it is the position of most white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants today.”

Barton talked about how New York conference church members were among those organizing in the South, including  Gloster Current of St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Jamaica, the “Black church” in the same community.  Current was engaged in the struggle for justice in Jackson, Mississippi that summer.  “He had come north for a conference, because all mail and telephone calls into Jackson or out of Jackson are censored at the present time.  He said he was scared to death, because an NAACP leader in Jackson, today, is a man marked for assassination.  ‘But,’ he said, ‘there are not many Negroes involved in the struggle for freedom who would not pay that price.  Life on the present terms is not worth living, so what do we have to lose except life or injustice?’”

In June of 1963, Barton spoke about the fears that not only the South, but New York City, would explode in violence.  He spoke of a Negro (sic) leader being asked on the radio “what are you doing to prevent bloodshed in New York this summer?”, to which the man responded, “The real question is what are you doing to bring about justice?”  He also noted that NYAC Bishop Lloyd C. Wicke helped give leadership for the Conference in this regard.  Wicke had recently said “the time had come when a Bishop could be far more effective on a picket line than in the pulpit.”  Said Barton, “I agree, and so do most of the ministers in the New York East conference.  Anticipating real trouble, particularly if a major filibuster develops over the civil rights bill, most of us, including our Bishop, are prepared to assemble on call to give a witness to what we believe about justice in areas where it is not prevalent.  There will be bi-racial committees working here in Jamaica to explore areas of injustice and examine areas of possible cooperation.  I need the names of all of you who will be willing to serve on such committees.” He went on to say, “this summer could be a terrifying summer in New York City unless every force for good gives evidence of an intention to witness immediately to their love of God and their fellow men.  The churches should be leading the way.  Will ours?”

In response to the call by Gloster Currant and others, a group of clergy in the conference, including Gil Caldwell, John Collins, George McClain, Charles Barton and others (if my memory serves me), organized to get bail money to those engaged in the Freedom Summer in the south.

In this context of heightened tension, Barton joined Methodists from across the country at the March on Washington, including many from New York.  I remember that our church had a student pastor from Union Theological Seminary, Bob Wingaard.  He and his wife Nancy were from Birmingham, Alabama, and he was in the South participating in the Freedom Summer.  This made them pariahs among many of their peers in Alabama, but also brought consternation to our congregation in Queens.  I was a young kid, on vacation with my mother and siblings.  Later my mother talked about how hard she was praying that day as my father and many others headed to Washington DC.  Many were fearful of violence by the police, and after the violence all had witnessed in the South, this action was considered a risky undertaking.  The New York Times and other papers reflected surprise the following day, at the peaceful and “orderly” nature of the massive march.

Barton’s sermon the day after the march reflects his excitement and surprise about the strength of the church presence there.   He told his congregation that he was dismayed to be the only representative from his congregation.  He ran into friends who asked, “Who’s here from Jamaica?”  “Just me,” I replied.  One pastor had a sizable group from Alaska.  “I was carrying a sign that read, “Freedom NOW.”  On the back, I printed “Jamaica, NY” in large letters.   There were hundreds of people there from nearly all of the churches of Jamaica, and as they saw my sign, many came over to speak to me.  One Negro minister…introduced me (to another) as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Jamaica.  “He doesn’t represent the church.  He’s just here on his own,” he noted.

Barton went on to preach about the need for white allies in the struggle.  “A. Phillip Randolph who organized the march said rather wistfully, “We need allies.  People who are victims must take the leadership…But the Negro cannot win the fight alone…”   He quoted Rabbi Prinz, rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, saying that worse than bigotry and hatred is silence.  Prinz said, “America must not remain silent.  It must speak up and act, and not for the sake of the Negro, but for the …aspiration of America itself.”  He cited a World Council of Churches strongly worded statement in response to the March, saying “Christians who support segregation by action or inaction betray Jesus Christ and the fellowship which bears his name.”  He recalls the gathered crowd singing “Oh Freedom” and many other songs.   And he ends with concrete organizing about a move towards open pulpits in the New York Conference, which at that time did not assign Black clergy to majority white churches, observing, “Are you prepared to receive a Negro as your pastor?  If not, you’d better head for South Africa or Alabama, because no denomination in this part of the world will provide a haven for those who are seeking a church based on congeniality and community of interests, rather than a Gospel of love and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit…I wish you would sit in on some of the neighborhood councils and listen to the stirring of history.  I wish you would gather to pray for me and with me as I seek faith to follow God into the unknown.”

Barton tells the experience of one white Methodist pastor in Mississippi that illustrates the times:  “A few years ago, Dr. William Selah, pastor of the largest Methodist church in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, wrote an article entitled, “Separate but Equal, the Christian position.”  Among the members of his church are Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi, the Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, and the co-founders of the White Citizens Council.  But Dr. Selah came to realize that this was not the Christian answer.  Two Sundays ago (1963), when five Negro girls were turned away from the Galloway Memorial Methodist Church, Dr. Selah, who had been there for nineteen years, stood in the pulpit and said that he could no longer be the pastor of a church which barred anyone from access to Jesus Christ. The Official Board was convened immediately, his resignation was accepted, and he was given two months’ salary and forbidden to enter the church again, even to pick up personal effects.  Fortunately, due to our connectional system, he was reassigned outside the State of Mississippi.  His courageous action made me feel that maybe our church was coming to life after all, maybe we do place our loyalty to Christ above all in some instances.”

Barton went on to say, “it seems to me that the struggle in which we are now engaged is not a matter of integration or desegregation, or anything of that sort.  It is a simple matter of justice.  Do we have one set of standards for one group of Americans and another set for another group, or do we all share and share alike?  This, basically, is what the American Negro is fighting for today….This is the area in which the Church will be defined and made manifest in our generation.”

I found this excerpt from his sermon a year later (June 1964), the week that James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Mississippi:

Mississippi offers a challenge equal to that of the Congo.  What happened to the three young men last week might have deterred many of the hundreds who are going there this summer in one of the greatest mass missionary movements in history, but it didn’t.  It has had the net effect of stepping up recruitment, and churches all over the world are sending missionaries to aid in the task of helping Mississippians discover the answer to the question, “what is man? (Psalm 8: 4a) in the variety of his colors?”  This is the number one question for our generation, and until it is answered, time stands still for all humanity.  South African and Mississippi have become symbols of an earlier culture that is anachronistic in our world, just as the church has for many people.  And the church will remain an anachronism for many until it can help South Africa and Mississippi and Jamaica, Queens move into a living present where God, and not race, is the central thing.  …the thing that makes men in Mississippi want to kill the men who are trying to change their world is (that) the question “What is man?” has been answered in a way that puts man and not God at the center of things…. We may talk about race relations in Mississippi, or we may talk about murders in Queens, or we may talk about war in Vietnam, but in all instances we are dealing with human sin in its almost infinite variations. …You will never know what it is like to be fully human until you accept your humanity on God’s terms.

My father is deceased.  My sister, an elementary school teacher in San Antonio, got the button he brought home from the March that day.  She has pulled it out every year on Martin Luther King Jr.’s. birthday, to teach about the March and the history of the civil rights movement, and her own connection to it, so it has been used to educate hundreds of children!

I’m proud to be on the national staff of United Methodist Women as this 50th anniversary of the March rolls around, because of our commitment to actively live out the Charter for Racial Justice.  As my colleague Janis Rosheuvel said, “it’s not a commemoration, it’s a continuation.”  In a moment when voter suppression is rampant; the Voting Rights Act has lost its teeth; affirmative action is seen as un-necessary; the media speaks of a “post-racial society” even as Black youth are shot down and their killers go free; in a moment when xenophobia shapes an immigration debate and pending legislation would militarize the US border to keep brown people out; in a moment when the economic crisis has disproportionately impacted Black and Latino communities; when mass incarceration disproportionately jails Black and Latino women and men; when chronic illness disproportionately impacts communities of color,  our nation is a long way from King’s dream.  This is a time of rebirth of struggle for civil rights, fed by the energies, creativity, outrage and passion of young people of color.   So the questions of my father remain poignant today.  Where are the white allies?  Where is the Church?  Where are you?

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One comment

  1. Sally Vonner · · Reply

    Carol, thanks for sharing your connection to the March through your father. Sadly his questions from 50 years ago still need attention. The work must continue, everyday should be a “March” for justice.

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