This 1967 photograph shows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (right) and his son Marty with the Rev. Walter Fauntroy in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photo/
This 1967 photograph shows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (right) and his son Marty with the Rev. Walter Fauntroy in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of

In August of 2013, for weeks, the Rev. Perry Smith urged his congregation to join the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, emphasizing the historicity and significance of the occasion. 

“We felt it was something that needed to occur because of the absence of the rights of African Americans in this country,” said Smith, in an interview 10 years ago.

A decade later, many veterans of the movement have passed away, such as Smith, who died in April 2021. 

As people gather for the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, current freedom fighters stress the importance of remembering the many leaders, churches and people, who, during the civil rights movement and major demonstrations, led, fed, housed, protected and encouraged thousands.  

The Rev. Perry Smith: Fighting Racism from Maryland to Mississippi

During his long career, Smith didn’t hesitate to wage battles against injustice. After attending Howard University School of Divinity and being called to pastor First Baptist of North Brentwood, Smith plunged into activism. 

“Racism abounded in Maryland as it did in Mississippi, and pastors were not only called to preach but to lead their community toward racial integration and desegregation,” Smith said in a previous interview.

Rev. Perry Smith (Coourtesy photo)
Rev. Perry Smith (Coourtesy photo)

In 1961, Smith was a member of a group of ministers who boarded a Greyhound bus to Tallahassee to integrate the segregated capital of Florida. He also worked with Robert F. Kennedy to implement Head Start and anti-poverty programs. 

Smith was also part of a group of ministers, which included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who broke away from the National Baptist Convention, USA in 1961 after it did not fully support the civil rights movement, and joined the newly formed Progressive National Baptist Convention. 

Smith said the biggest inspiration in his life was his grandfather, Perry Smith, a business owner in Mississippi. 

“During the Montgomery bus boycott, my grandfather took me to meet Dr. King,” Smith recalled. He said his grandfather was very politically active. 

“He thought that everyone should have the right to vote. If someone wanted to vote, he would pay their poll tax and make sure that they were registered voters,” Smith said. 

During the 1963 March on Washington, Smith was standing in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial when King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. At the time, Smith was president of the Prince George’s County chapter of the NAACP, which was waging its battles to integrate public schools, housing, and employment in the county. 

The Rev. Walter Fauntroy: A Civil Rights Leader, Pastor and Politician

The Rev. Walter Fauntroy, the District’s first delegate to the House of Representatives, who also served as longtime pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, played a key role in organizing the March on Washington. While Fauntroy’s ailing health prevented him from being interviewed, his son Marvin Fauntroy said his mother Dorothy Fauntroy, and father opened up their home and church to many leaders during the march. 

In January of 1992, I interviewed Rev. Fauntroy, who was 58, shortly after his term in Congress was over. 

At the time, he had lost a bid for mayor and was reflecting on his life. He said he explained his role as a civil rights activist as opposed to being “a traditional minister.” 

“Religion is not something you preach from a pulpit,” he said, “and then lock it up in a church with no relevance from Monday to Saturday.” 

Fauntroy said his church family “understood why I didn’t visit the sick as much or do some of the things a pastor is required to do, because I had a broader ministry: the civil rights movement.” 

“They wanted to hear that when they went to the South, they didn’t have to pack a greasy bag lunch anymore or explain to their children they couldn’t stop at the restaurant or go to the toilet unless it said ‘colored.’ They understood that.” 

Churches Become Central to the Movement 

In 1963, Washington, D.C., was the epicenter for many of the largest churches in the country. 

With dynamic leaders who migrated to the area from the South, these churches hosted many events where King and other leaders of the movement spoke.  

There were dynamic preachers like the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt T. Walker, C.T. Vivian and Hosea Williams. 

“The church has been vital in terms of social justice and today  we must address the issues beyond the walls of the church at a time when churches are not as active as we were years ago unfortunately,” said Rev. Henry P. Davis, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Highland Park, in an interview. “We have too many churches today who are not proud of their history and civil rights heritage and we have become way too passive.” 

“Look at what Nat Turner Did. He was a minister who led a slave revolt for his people,” Davis said. “We have to speak truth to power and social justice ministry needs to be in every church more than ever.” 

From 1953 to his death in 1968, King spoke at District churches, including 10th Street Baptist Church, Vermont Avenue Baptist, New York Avenue Presbyterian, and the Washington National Cathedral. 

Other popular churches that welcomed freedom fighters were places such as: Luther Place United Methodist, All Souls Unitarian Church, People’s Congregational United Church of Christ, and Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. 

Faith Community and Airwaves Key to the Freedom Fight

Some of the most vocal ministers were not only active in the civil rights movement, but they had popular radio programs on outlets like WYCB, WOL-AM, and WUST. These men included Bishop Smallwood E. Williams, pastor of Bibleway Temple; Bishop Sherman Howard, pastor of the New Bethel Church of God in Christ; and Bishop C. L. Long, pastor of the Scriptural Cathedral that used to be at 9th and O streets Northwest.  

Apostle Betty Peebles of Jericho City of Praise also used WYCB to spread messages on her programs. 

Radio station owner Cathy Hughes played a huge role in hosting programs locally and she would go on to create Radio One and then TVOne.  

It would be on WOL-AM that ministers like Fauntroy joined activists like Dick Gregory, Joe Madison, and others to prick the hearts of people in the nation’s capital. 

Kings Final Sunday Sermon Delivered in D.C.

On March 31, 1968, four days before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, he preached his final Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral.  

During his sermon, which was called “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” King warned people of the challenges still present in the world. He used the character of Rip Van Winkle, who slept for 20 years and woke up to a place he knew nothing about. 

 “I must say this morning that racial injustice is still the Black man’s burden and the white man’s shame,” preached King, who, during the message, answered his critics for opposing the war in Vietnam.  

“There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right,” said King who during his sermon talked about returning to Washington for the Poor People’s campaign. 

King said, “We are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses” to Washington, D.C., to call for economic justice.

And even though he would die four days later, on April 4, 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign still took place in D.C. a month after his death. He told those gathered at the Cathedral that, in the end, the people would see victory for their efforts. 

“We’re  going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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