Labor Day, LGBTQ rights, and the 1963 March on Washington

We’re all hearing a great deal about how the 1963 March on Washington featured Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But I’ve been thinking about jobs and LGBTQ rights.

With Labor Day just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about how it was billed as a “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Shannon sent me a link to the Organizing Manual (you can view it online here) — and the Organizing Manual contained this passage about jobs and labor:

Why We March

“We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis.

“That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.

“Discrimination in education and apprenticeship training renders Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of racism. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that or whites.

“Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution. …

“The Southern Democrats came to power by disfranchising the Negro. They know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.”


That’s something to think about on this Labor Day weekend. Maybe we haven’t come as far as we think we have in the last fifty years — with the salaries of the CEOs rising, and the middle class disappearing, these days many white workers are also entering semi-slavery….

And then one of the two names listed on the front page of the Organizing Manual is that of Bayard Rustin. He was crucial to making the March on Washington become a reality. But because he was openly gay, the others who were in charge felt they had to keep Rustin in the background. At least we’ve made some progress in the area of LGBTQ rights; today, they might even have let Rustin speak, or at least show his face on the speaker’s platform [but see Erp’s correction to this statement in the comments below].

Making changes

Major changes may go smoothly, but they are never easy.

This year, our congregation decided to start Sunday school a month earlier than our usual start date. Since 1950, we had started Sunday school classes in the middle of September. Back in the 1950s, that’s when the local school systems began a new school year, so it made sense for Sunday school to resume at the same time. But this year, in 2013, classes in the Palo Alto Unified School District began on August 15. If we were to follow the pattern of past years, we would have had our first day of regular Sunday school classes on September 22; but it simply didn’t make sense for Sunday school to open more than a month later than the public schools.

So this year, we had our intergenerational ingathering service on August 18. The choir came back from its summer hiatus on August 18; and the Sunday school resumed regular classes on August 25. That also meant that Amy, our senior minister, and I, as the minister of religious education, had had to return from our summer breaks a couple of weeks earlier than usual, on July 22.

Now in theory, moving the start of the congregational year back a month is not all that difficult. We started planning months ago, we paid attention to details, and really everything has gone surprisingly smoothly. Yes, there have been some people who forgot that the congregational year was going to begin a month earlier; yes, there have been some minor annoyances for everyone; but on the whole, we have had almost no real problems.

But that doesn’t mean it has been painless. From my perspective, I realized that for the past eighteen years, I have counted on having the Labor Day holiday as a cushion, in case I needed an extra day to prepare for the opening of the congregational year; I had no such cushion this year, and I could have used it; I’m pretty burned out right now. From the perspective of families, I’ve received a few plaintive email messages from parents saying that they didn’t realize Sunday school was starting so soon; this makes me feel terrible.

And I know from experience that every time you make major changes in a congregational system, you will run afoul of unexpected effects (some of which remain hidden for months) for the next ten to twelve months. Sometimes it’s a cascade effect: one small thing is affected, and that results in two other small changes, which result in even more small changes.

If there is a theological lesson to be drawn from this, it is that everything is connected, often in ways of which we have little or no awareness.

If there is a practical lesson to be drawn from this, it is that even a positive change, one that is widely supported, can be difficult to implement. Which makes me think: No wonder it’s hard to grow a congregation.