By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (August 28, 2013)— Throughout 1963 and 1964 the Covenant Companion published numerous articles and editorials strongly pushing for the advancement of civil rights, yet five days before the historic gathering, an editorial voiced concerns about participating in the march on Washington.
Like many civil rights supporters, such as the Kennedys who initially tried to get organizers to cancel the march, editors warned that a few participants might incite violence and thus damage the cause.
The editorial, which is reprinted in full here, stated, “On August 28 some 150,000–200,000 people will move into Washington to participate in an inter-racial march originally planned for the purpose of seeking to persuade Congress to approve the President’s civil rights proposals. The purposes of the march have now been considerably expanded, however, and the estimate of the number of people to be involved as participants substantially increased. As a consequence, the dangers inherent in a demonstration of this kind have been heightened as well.”
It continued that while the “vast majority” of demonstrators would “be not only good but noble,” it was “inevitable” that some would provoke violence. “Were this to happen, the realization of a more equitable social order in which Negroes and other racial groups would enjoy the same rights as whites would be seriously threatened, if not needlessly delayed.”
Of course those fears were never realized, and the march that wound up attracting more than 250,000 people was a further galvanizing force that led to passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Through 1963 and 1964, more than 50 articles, editorials, and letters focusing on civil rights were published in the Companion, nearly all of which supported the cause and the historic legislation.
The articles included one written by Martin Luther King Jr., reprinted from the Lutheran magazine in October 1963, two months after the march. An article written by Charles Duey, a Covenant missionary to Ecuador, appeared in the March 20, 1964, issue.
Other stories documented actions by the Annual Meeting and the Ministerium.
Months before the march, a resolution approved at the 1963 Annual Meeting focused on race relations and declared that “Racial discrimination in any form is an insult to God and an offense to human dignity … the continued condition of segregated housing produces segregation of schools, churches, and community enterprises” and “that the Evangelical Covenant Church of America … go on record as commending those state and municipal governments which have enacted fair housing legislations,” as well as pursue legal remedies for segregation.
The resolution further focused on life in the church, stating, “That we encourage our churches to declare their desire to receive into membership all who trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, regardless of race or nationality; and be it further resolved that persons of all races be assured that upon fulfilling the appropriate training, their service as Covenant ministers would be welcomed.”
At the same meeting, the Ministerium adopted a letter that called on laity to pursue civil rights. Pastors were asked to read the letter to their congregations. (An article about the letter is reprinted here.)
That letter stated in part that “While the full solution of the tension between the races cannot be expected from unredeemed men and women who are not attentive to the wishes of our Father, surely those who have been born again and who renounce their own selfish will for the will of God should be in the vanguard of those who help break down the sinful barriers which separate us.”
It continued, “We are grateful to God for occasions in which the ministers and churches have been used to reduce tension and reconcile brother to brother but we also confess that we have failed to submit fully to the will of God in this matter, and we ask you to join us in repentance for that failure.”
At the time, the denomination observed Race Relations Sunday, which was started in 1923 by the then newly formed Federal Council of Churches. In the February 7, 1964, issue of the Companion, an editorial encouraging participation in Race Relations Sunday exhorted, “Let us observe Race Relations Sunday not simply by thinking kindly about people of other races but by thinking seriously and creatively about our own responsibility in this matter. A good place for all of us to begin is with the admonition found in Matthew 5:23-24, which is the text for the message for Race Relations Sunday: ‘…first be reconciled to your brother.’”
Churches engaged in multiple activities, including white and black congregations worshiping together. A later issue contained a story about a joint worship service between Trinity Covenant Church in Livingston, New Jersey, a white congregation, and a black Presbyterian congregation from nearby Montclair.
The article recorded, “The worship service took place on Sunday evening, May 24, and a ‘very worthwhile experience’ … was the outcome of this experiment, according to Pastor (Clarence) Winstedt. The Rev. C. Lincoln McGee, a leading Negro clergyman and politician, gave the sermon, and the choir of the guest church sang.”
Discussion among Covenanters in letters published in the Companion reflected the fact that not everyone agreed with the denomination’s support of the civil rights pursuit and the 1964 law.
One writer stated, “that the mission of the church is to preach and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19, 20), not to become a front for certain political parties in getting controversial legislation passed.” The writer added that “love is not negotiable in the halls of legislation. Only the naïve try to cure the ill of the world by ‘passing a law.’”
In an editorial published in May 15, 1964, the Companion noted that some people had complained the magazine had too strongly promoted civil rights and political action. The editorial responded, “But we cannot do otherwise. …. And so we must write about race and the crisis that has developed as suppressed men seek justice and freedom. In the long run, this probably has a lot to do with the channeling of God’s reconciling grace which can break down every wall of separation in race, color, caste, tribe, sex, class, or nation.”
Click here to read other articles about the March on Washington.