54 years ago, hundreds of thousands people assembled in Washington DC to participate in a moment that inspired a movement. Dubbed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, participants were united in time and place and though they were not monolithic; some were standing together in protest of a society that was divided by race and class and geography and some were standing together searching for societal reforms regarding jobs and economic injustice. They marched together, they sang together; they met each other “on the road.” They found commonality of purpose in conversation and those exchanges were echoed beautifully in the stirring words immortalized by time, “I have a dream.”
The date of the march, August 28, 1963, was a date ordained by fate. Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy, was kidnapped 8 years earlier after he was accused of whistling at a white woman. Emmett was taken and tortured and brutally murdered. His mother, believing that society had become indifferent to the pain experienced by people of color in America, insisted that his funeral be held with an open casket. She wanted the world to see what indifference looks like.
Indifference today can be mistakenly interpreted as permission… or worse. Those who don’t stop a crime from taking place — those who remain indifferent — are viewed as accomplices. Perhaps that is why the Torah portion of this week warns us against such behavior. The text challenges us — commands us — with five simple words: You must not be indifferent.
54 years after that iconic moment at the foot of Lincoln, 3,000 clergy members united across denomination and faith tradition in the shadow of King in an attempt to make a difference. Under the rays of the August sun we heard inspiring words from a number of compelling speakers, each members of clergy and voices of inspiration and change for their respective communities. We were commanded not to waste the moment; that those who marched on Monday and sat down on Tuesday were doing just that. We were told to take the Washington moment, the moment of King and Till and the hundreds of thousands of other moments that formed the Movement and to do the work of fixing all that we see around us that is broken. We were told to be courageous not just in the midst of thousands of other people of faith but to lead our communities to find and channel that same courage. We were inspired to be the headlights, lighting the way, and not the taillights, reflecting the glow of where we have been. The past is important, but the future is imperative.
And so we return to our communities having meet other colleagues who could be allies on the journey toward the mountaintop. We do so having marked a moment…and wondering if we have borne witness to the rebirth of a movement.
As we stood together at the close of the march, one of the participants today mentioned to me: these feet have been aching for 54 years. And they’re aching still. But we march on. Because we don’t know how to sit still when there is so much work to be done.
To which I responded the only way I knew how: we grasped hands and I said, “Amen.”