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Lessons from the March on Washington: The Value of Allyship By Dr. Keith Magee

September 8, 2021

Lessons from the March on Washington: The Value of Allyship 
By Dr. Keith Magee



( -    The last weekend in August was the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As many Americans reflected on the significance of the day, particularly as voting rights across the country are under attack, they likely thought about the legacy and image of the mighty Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., standing at a lectern in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the huge crowd stretched before him captivated by his vision of a society without racism. If required to list the other leaders of this historic protest, Americans might be able to name one, maybe more, of the other Black men who, along with King, made up the "Big Six" -- James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young -- all of whom are now rightly honored as heroes of the Civil Rights movement.

However, we often forget that the "Big Six" were in fact "Top Ten," for the group had expanded in the weeks before the march to include four White men. Three of them -- Mathew H. Ahmann, Rev. Eugene Carson Blake, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz -- were prominent religious leaders. The fourth, Walter Reuther, was a labor leader.

Although, regrettably, no women were included in the "Top Ten" or given the opportunity to address the crowd through long speeches as the men did, Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, talked briefly and several other women made notable musical contributions. Joan Baez led demonstrators in a rousing rendition of 'We Shall Overcome.' The gospel singer Mahalia Jackson not only sang but also played a pivotal role in the proceedings by calling out to a hesitant King, "Tell them about the dream, Martin," emboldening him to abandon his prepared speech and launch into a rousing improvisation.

It was not only those who were on the stage that day who understood the impact of allyship. The crowds also reflected the coming together of people of different races, genders, faiths and backgrounds to support the cause of justice, freedom, and jobs for all. It is estimated that around 20-25% of the 250,000 marchers were White. In a nation in which Whites still constituted more than 88% of the population, this was a small start, but the fact that the crowd was, undeniably, visibly diverse sent a powerful message: the dream that King described was for everyone.

Civil rights allyship was largely based on faith. In local churches, synagogues and mosques people came to a shared understanding of suffering and salvation and heard the call of some religious leaders to join the fight for justice.

Faith, in its broadest sense, is still a common denominator among those who respond to that call; even Americans who do not identify with any particular creed are often moved to action by a deep-rooted belief that we are all bound together by our common humanity.

Today, as we continue the long struggle for racial equality in an increasingly polarized society, we must not forget that we have a proud tradition of allyship on which to draw. By openly celebrating the allies of the past, we inspire young people to follow their lead, we recognize the value of collaboration and we remind ourselves to cherish the allies of the present.

This commentary was first published by Keith Magee is a theologian, political adviser and social justice scholar. He is chair and professor of practice in social justice at Newcastle University (United Kingdom) and senior fellow in culture and justice at the University College London. While he was a visiting scholar at Boston University, he founded The Social Justice Institute in 2014, which remains the hub for his independent work and research. He is the author of "Prophetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion and Politics."

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