Tending the Soul: On the March


In front of the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC, tens of thousands of people gathered to protest, celebrate, and sing. They heard speeches and prayed for an end to discrimination, injustice, and violence against people on the margins of society. As word spread from organizers, people traveled great distances from other states. The crowd swelled through the day.

Organizers billed the gathering as a “Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.” The date was May 17, 1957, three years to the day after the US Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. For the marchers there was much to celebrate, and much to be concerned about – as numerous states still were refusing to implement access to minority students in white schools.

Pilgrimage has been practiced for centuries
as a physical, geographical journey
that mirrors and cultivates
a journey of the soul.

Among the organizers there was internal controversy over what the march was about. A spark for broader civil rights protest movements? Confronting Eisenhower over workplace discrimination in the defense industry? School desegregation? Celebration? Inspiration? Confrontation? Prayer? How to frame the day, and harness the energy strategically? Would it be secular or religious? For Negroes or for all? NAACP or a coalition? It was early in the movement; strategies and goals were vague.

The day fell short of expectations for attendance. But six years before the more famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (“I Have a Dream”), it was the largest demonstration for civil rights to date. The national press took notice and keynote speaker Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took national stage.

What catches my eye sixty years later for soul tending is the word “pilgrimage.” Pilgrimage has been practiced for centuries and even millennia as a physical, geographical journey that mirrors and cultivates a journey of soul. We take “trips” for reasons big and small. Embarking on pilgrimage, however, involves intentionality and awareness of the sacred in our journey. There is an expectation of transformation, inward and outward. We won’t return the same. In turn, our world won’t be the same.

African-Americans have held a long and deep awareness of sacred journey in their collective story. In the words of just one spiritual:
We've come a long way, Lord, a mighty long way
We've borne our burdens in the heat of the day
But we know the Lord has made the way
We've come a long way, Lord, a mighty long way

Against this centuries-old backdrop organizers such as Bayard Rustin and Adam Clayton Powell settled on framing the march as “Pilgrimage.” They’d come a mighty long way, personally and as a people, and there was a long way to go. The journey itself was a prayer.

As Dr. King said in his extraordinary address that day, “The universe is on our side in the struggle. Stand up for justice. Sometimes it gets hard, but it is always difficult to get out of Egypt, for the Red Sea always stands before you with discouraging dimensions. And even after you’ve crossed the Red Sea, you have to move through a wilderness with prodigious hilltops of evil and gigantic mountains of opposition. But I say to you this afternoon: Keep moving. Let nothing slow you up.”

It was a journey of soul.

For Soul Tending

Read the full text and listen to a portion of the audio of Dr. King’s speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. What sentences speak to your soul? What in the tenor of the preacher’s voice, or the response of the crowd, stirs something within? What about the events of that day, or the events of our day 60 years later, resonates and invites?

Scott Dewey directs Centering Way.

Photo credit: Wayne State University