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United Methodist Women Upholds Tradition of Racial Justice at 50th Anniversary March on Washington and Beyond

Sung-ok Lee (left) and Janis Rosheuvel at 50th Anniversary March on Washington
Sung-ok Lee (left) and Janis Rosheuvel at 50th Anniversary March on Washington

By Janis Rosheuvel

From August 21-28, 2013, thousands of people traveled to Washington, D.C. to be lifted by the legacy of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I went as the executive for racial justice at United Methodist Women (UMW), an institution whose powerful heritage in the struggle for racial equality is intertwined with the nation’s. This heritage saw UMW integrate its ranks before many social organizations of its time, adopt a visionary Charter for Racial Justice, and partner with social movements working for migrant rights, public education and economic justice in order to support crucial efforts toward racial justice.

Ninety-year-old Inez Grant, a 23-year member of UMW, said of the August 24th march, “there was a lot of love and excitement. People were really on one accord. Everybody was there trying to get everything out of it that they could.” Ms. Grant, who now lives in New York but is originally from Jamaica and a great-grandmother 15 times over, also saw Saturday as a call to action. “More of our people need to get involved. Right now there is a lot of talk. We can’t just wait until the anniversaries to talk. We have to keep talking,” she insisted.

Ms. Grant is one of the many members who are part of UMW’s long history of agitating for racial justice. Kate Ambrose, of Knoxville, TN is another member who has powerful memories of her experience attending the first March on Washington in 1963. “I was 23 years old, walking toward the monument with a host of other people of all races. It was a beautiful sunny day, everybody was singing and holding hands, and filled with hope for this country,” Ms. Ambrose remembers. “We had no idea if it would really be peaceful or very dangerous, but decided to stand up and be counted,” she continued.

For the Methodist Church and the then Women’s Division, 1963 was also a time of great challenge and change. It was at the Second Quadrennial Conference in 1963 that the Methodist Church called for the removal of all discriminatory practices in its institutions, including in the appointment of pastors. It was at that same conference that the Women’s Division and the Methodist Church sent a delegation of six people, including Thelma Stevens, Theresa Hoover and 30 other volunteers from the gathering, to participate in the March on Washington. The mandate of support from the Church was:  “(1) to witness the concern of the American people to the national moral issue of racial injustice and (2) to give support to justice implemented through civil rights legislation.”

While Dr. King spoke about the fierce urgency of now in his “I Have a Dream” speech, what UMW has done and pushed the church to come back to over and over again is the fierce urgency of everyday struggles for racial justice. In her recounting of her father’s participation in the 1963 march, UMW executive for social action Carol Barton recalls, “at the time of the march he was a pastor at the 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,’” she says. But her father, along with many in the church and the Women’s Division at the time, made it their responsibility to do the challenging work of organizing for racial justice by having hard conversations about race in multiethnic environments and taking risks to act and speak out, not only when it is comfortable, but indeed and especially when it is not. This hard work is UMW’s tradition. This remains our call as people of faith, as individuals and as an institution.

As we celebrate UMW’s racial justice efforts at the 1963 march, United Methodist Women from New York to Knoxville to Louisville and beyond must reconnect with our tradition of risk-taking for justice. In the face of so many threats to civil rights in our own day—xenophobia leading to anti-immigrant legislation, an era of renewed Jim Crow that sees more black men in prison than were enslaved in 1850, an undermining of the social safety net for our most vulnerable, and a nationwide effort to roll back the gains of the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 60s—we are called to do more. More education about the state of the crisis we are living under. More outreach and organizing with our communities. More action. More hope.

As Carol Barton recalls her father’s work for civil rights and racial equity, she understands that, “this is a time of rebirth of the struggle for civil rights, fed by energies, creativity, outrage and passion of young people of color. So my father’s questions remain poignant today: Where are the white allies? Where is the Church? Where are you?”

To find actions that you can take to continue UMW’s fight for racial justice, please see the action alert.

Last Updated: 04/03/2014

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