Fifty years ago today, on Aug. 28, 1963, Jim Brewster, a 27-year-old student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., found himself a part of history, walking in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and listening with an estimated quarter of a million others to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Saturday in Jacksonville, Brewster, now a retired Methodist preacher and a member of Swansboro United Methodist Church, participated in what he called a “joyous” celebration and commemoration of that seminal event in America history.
Dozens of people marched from the old Onslow County Courthouse to Riverside Park, where they and many more listened to speakers, including the Rev. D.R. Sidberry, who recited the King speech from memory. Brewster was one of the other speakers at the event, which was sponsored by the Onslow County Democratic Party. (See separate story.)
In the days before the Jacksonville commemoration, Brewster reminisced about that red-letter day a half century ago.
“I was an assistant pastor at a church in Arlington, Va., and I joined the march,” he said, despite the fact that the church had “refused to provide hospitality” for those in the march, probably because they feared violence; a lot of people did. “I’m pretty sure I was the only person from my church on the march.
“In my own family home in western New York, my father, who was a preacher, was always concerned about social justice,” he said. “He was interested in the conditions for migrant workers, the migrant worker camps. It was always present in our family, and so I grew up with a sensitivity to social issues.”
He remembers that Aug. 28, 1963, was a beautiful morning, and he was excited to participate.
“I joined on Constitution Avenue as everyone walked toward the Lincoln Memorial,” he said. “I remember feeling a bit anxious at first.”
Part of the reason was that there was a heavy law enforcement presence; there were close to 6,000 police on hand, plus several thousand soldiers, including National Guard.
But, Brewster said, the anxiety quickly disappeared, as the atmosphere was joyful, enthusiastic and peaceful.
“I was very impressed,” he said. “There was a tremendous variety of people: civil rights activists, of course, but also labor unions, students and a lot of church people. You could obviously feel that history was being made.”
King’s speech, Brewster said, was tremendously inspirational.
“I was so far away that I could barely see what was going on,” he said. “But even hearing it over the P.A. system, it was so powerful. The man was truly inspired by a sense of God’s justice, and so was the crowd.”
Although Brewster had long been filled with that same sense, the monumental march and the soaring speech served to “affirm and confirm” his belief in and commitment to social justice and equality for all.
It inspired him to seek positions in which he could do the most good for those with the least; he worked with inner-city congregations in New York cities, worked in campus ministry and worked with victims of the Love Canal environmental disaster in Niagra Falls, N.Y.
Even today, the events of the day influence him, as chairman of the church and society committee at Swansboro United Methodist.
The day also helped change the Methodist Church, Brewster said, helping to spur, five years later, the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church into the United Methodist Church.
The African-American and largely white congregations of the church no longer had separate administrative hierarchies.
And, Brewster said, the march and rally helped change religion in America in a more general sense: People of faith “began to understand” that it was not “Christian” to be bigoted, that in order to be bigoted or racist, a Christian had to “have an excuse.”
As for the Jacksonville march and rally, Brewster said he felt it was appropriate and necessary for him to participate, both because it was a “joyful and celebratory” event and because it served as an important local reminder of the need to maintain focus on jobs, freedom and economic justice.
He also noted that despite many people’s best efforts, rancor still unfortunately exists between the races, and said the local event is a reminder that work remains to be done on that front, too.
At the event Saturday, Brewster displayed a drawing he had done of one of his memories of the original march.
It depicted a lone man who he saw holding a sign that warned the world was going to end on Dec. 31, 1963, and that urged others to “repent.”
“That was a long time ago, but he has been etched in mind ever since,” Brewster said. “Here he was, at a march for justice and freedom, but he was just lost in his own religion, his interpretation, oblivious.
“To me, over the years, he became a poster child for short-sightedness. It was obvious and still is obvious to me that he did not understand that our God is a God of love” who did not intend his people to be divided.
Editor’s Note: For more on this story, log into the Tideland News e-Edition today or pick up your copy of Tideland News on newsstands.
Interested in home delivery? Call (910) 326-5066 or e-mail email@example.com.