“I shall live,” sang a soloist from the pulpit of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., serenading those gathering with peals of hope as the nation wakened to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.
On the morning of festivities commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, members of the Dr. Martin Luther King family hosted an interfaith prayer service, “Freedom: The Audacity to Believe,” at the home of the 150-year-old congregation founded by former slaves.
Music stirs the faithful in remembrance
People of all faiths were represented as Sikhs, Muslims, Jewish people, and Catholics filed into pews letting musical testaments to Christian belief shower over them.
A multiracial series of gospel choirs performed including members of the Shiloh Baptist Church Choir, the Voices of Freedom Ensemble, and the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Children of the Gospel Choir. As the songs of the Civil Rights Movement — “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize (Hold On),” “We Shall Overcome” — were spawned from the black church tradition, the strong choral element was a fitting tribute.
Leading those uniting for spiritual succor in remembrance of her father and his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Bernice King urged the audidence to remember the foundation of the church as the bedrock of Dr. King’s movement.
“Today, as we begin this commemoration, we begin by recognizing,” King said, taking the pulpit,”that men and women, boys and girls, across this nation, and around this world are remembering the legacy of Dr. King as a legacy of civil rights.”
Faith lifted up as King’s foundation
Bernice King was five months old when the march took place in 1963. Fifty years have passed since then, but it is still the role of faith communities to lead the world in the continuing fight for justice, regardless of the form of one’s religion, she said.
“It was that faith and the spirit of God himself that fueled that transformation in the ’50s and ’60s,” she explained of the social evolution spurred by her father. “Nothing in this world will change without people of faith coming together.”
Expressing her conviction that faith in a higher power is what grants the strength to overcome challenges and resist temptations, King alluded to Dr. King’s inspirational messages as she preached.
Calling on all human beings to understand that they are “of one blood,” Bernice King intoned that “we will overcome hate with love,” and must fight oppression with “the spirit of unity.”
Referring to her father as a prophet, who became the symbol and ultimately a martyr of the sixties fight for equality, Bernice also stressed that Dr. King was a pastor and faith leader — not just an activist.
Calling all faiths to unite for justice
She remembered that Dr. King understood, “if it were not for his faith, they would not have overcome.” Dr. King believed that Christian teachings had elevated America, and would move the nation forward, his daughter said.
Today, Bernice King’s conviction is that those of all walks of faith must share that responsibility.
“The faith community has to be the head and not the tail,” King said. “Without us, we will continue to wander in the darkness. With us, we will make it to the promise land.”
Readings from the bible and excerpts of speeches by Dr. King were then recited between riveting sermons that fired people up in the manner that many blacks affectionately refer to as the “old time religion.”
Taking to their feet and waving their arms in the air, they clapped in rapturous agreement with messages asking that we continue in Dr. King’s fight for social justice through peaceful means, while remembering his spiritual underpinning.
“We still have the hope and belief that God is in the delivering business,” said Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, pastor of Shiloh Baptist.
Finding the “King” within
In additon to the preaching tradition of the black church, its music often instilled marchers with the power to press on, often at moments of great physical peril. Facing flaming crosses and other concretizations of social opposition that seemed unmoveable, civil rights hymns based on these rhythms assured King and his followers that hate could and would be moved.
Invoking the spirit of Dr. King, who preached at Shiloh in 1960, one group of singers vividly brought people back to those times, emotionally melding those present with both King’s symbol of strength and the fortifying spirit often generated during religious ceremonies.
Moved by the refrain of their selection, “There is a King in You,” towards the middle of the service all stood suddenly, intuitively admiring the parallels between Dr. King’s name and the name that many Christians use when referring to Jesus Christ as their King.
“Is there a Dr. King in you?” one of the singers asked, as the church joined in the chorus. The roar that went up from the pews affirmed, “Yes!”
Speakers from the different faith communities present then went on to lift up Dr. King’s name in thanks, while giving God praise, as watchers prepared to honor all responsible for the display of brotherly love that was the 1963 March on Washington.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter @lexisb.
This article was updated to correctly reflect that Bernice King was five months old in 1963, not five years old.