The March on Washington, Racism & Church Diversity With Trillia Newbell

The March on Washington, Racism & Church Diversity With Trillia Newbell

August 21, 2013 by

On Aug. 28, 1963—50 years ago—several hundred thousand people marched on Washington demanding racial equality. A Baptist minister took to the podium and delivered a thunderous speech that ended in a call for all God’s children to be free at last.

That peaceful protest captivated the nation and became one of the most enduring and iconic moments of the civil rights movement. The speech by Martin Luther King Jr., given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history.

While it was a triumphant day, the March on Washington was not the end of the civil rights movement, but only a high point in that epic struggle. Only a few weeks later four young girls would be killed while attending Sunday School when Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed.

Fifty years later we look back on the civil rights movement and that historic march on Washington. Churches were intimately involved in the movement and we have much to learn from their example about communication, community involvement and social justice. We talk with Trillia Newbell, author of the forthcoming book United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity.

Trillia NewbellTell us about your new book. Why did you write it and why is it needed today?

Trillia Newbell: It’s well known that America has dealt with significant racial issues throughout the last century and while great strides have been made since the 1960s in issues of racial equality, the reality is that our churches remain separate but equal. The saying goes, “Sunday is the most segregated day of the week.” In a time of great progress, why does the church remain relatively unmoved? How can we change it? Should we even desire to change it if equality has been reached? United sets out to answer some of these questions through my personal story and God’s Word.

I wrote it because I’ve lived it and wanted to share how the Lord has blessed me with diverse relationships and how we can all benefit from it. I think it’s needed because we can speak about the problems over and over again but rarely do we provide solutions or cast a vision. My prayer is that United will cast a vision for the possibility of diversity within churches. My book will not provide all the answers, it’s my perspective and experience, but I do hope that it will help start and continue the conversation and provide ideas.

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech how is the church doing at living out that dream?

Trillia: I use his speech as an illustration in my book. I’d say that for the most part his dream has not been lived out in the church. You don’t see many little black and white children playing together. That was his vision and we are still working toward it.

What can we do to better realize that dream within our churches?

Trillia: I think if we don’t believe there is a problem we won’t fix it. So the first step might be to acknowledge that we are still segregated. From there I think we need to be honest about how we feel and what we think about other ethnicities. Finally, pastors must have this vision in order for the church to implement it.

Reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, I was struck by the entire appendix he added explaining how he differentiated between proper Christians and slave-holding Christians: “The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.” Even when slaves were freed those differences continued with Jim Crow laws for another 100 yearsit’s no wonder our churches are so divided. Will the pain of that division ever truly heal?

Trillia: The gospel unites—at least if it’s understood and applied it should unite. One day every tear will be wiped away. So I have great hope that we will one day have healing. I’d like to say that it will come this side of heaven but I can’t do that because I don’t know. But I do have hope that God can work good in the hearts of men to repent where needed and to forgive.

I’ve started doing some reading on the civil rights movement and I’m amazed at how subversive and shocking it all really was. Both that these things happened—the bombings, lynchings, etc.and that they needed to happen—in most cases the Supreme Court has already decided the issue and we were talking about enforcement of the law, not even changing the law. What do you find most surprising about the civil rights movement?

Trillia: For me what’s most surprising about the movement is that it wasn’t that long ago. It’s hard to believe my father lived during such a time as that. Though I have experienced racism and I can see division, I have not experienced anything like what my father and grandfather experienced. It’s hard to believe this is how America operated.

Churches obviously had a big role in the civil rights movement. Many of the leaders were ministers. Lots of churches were bombed in retaliation. What can today’s churches learn from the civil rights movement?

Trillia: I think perhaps one thing the church could learn would be perseverance. I imagine leaders and non-violent protesters must have felt like quitting. The opposition would seem too great at times for anyone under such circumstances. But they didn’t quit, even while being sprayed, beaten and jailed. Simply amazing perseverance.

I’ve been a Northerner all my life (doesn’t seem right to call a Midwesterner a “Yankee”) and last summer I spent some time in Mississippi, probably my first extended time in the Deep South. It was definitely a different culture and there were vestiges of the past, whether it was the self-imposed segregation (public vs. private pools) or the many monuments to the Confederacy. When we talk about race, slavery and civil rights there’s a lot of pain, shame, wounded pride, etc. Why is it important to continually have these conversations?

Trillia: This is a question I hear often. Why do we keep bringing it up? Why is it important? It’s interesting because it seems like it continues to be at the forefront of conversations because events like the George Zimmerman trial happen or a church won’t allow an interracial couple to marry. It sticks around because tensions and racism remain. Our hearts are the problem, I think. We continue to sin in this area and until we stop hating one another it will forever remain an issue.

What’s some reading we can do to dive further into race and the church?

Trillia: I recently listed some books that might prove helpful for history and black literature. You can access them here. You can also access several books about church and race via the Reformed African American Networks bookshelf. I also list several books in United, one in particular that has proven quite helpful to gaining a biblical understanding of race is From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race by J. Daniel Hays.


For more on the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr., check out our archives:

Photo: American Jewish Historical Society
Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998 and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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10 Responses to “The March on Washington, Racism & Church Diversity With Trillia Newbell”

  • Tim
    August 21, 2013

    Great interview, Kevin (tweeted a link), and I love your insights Trillia (as usual!). One thing I’d note is that the speech at the march was not only an iconic moment in the Civil Rights Movement, but one of the most important iconic moments in all of American history. The church still has a ways to go even 50 years on from that moment.


    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      August 21, 2013

      Thanks Tim, that’s certainly true. When I wrote the comment that Dr. King’s speech was one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history I thought I was just exaggerating and would tweak that after some research with the appropriate qualifiers. Turns out it was voted the top speech of the 20th century and is among the best speeches in U.S. history. No exaggeration at all!

    • Trillia
      August 22, 2013

      Thank you for reading, Tim and for your encouragement. Yes, one of the greatest speeches of all time!

  • Whitney
    August 22, 2013

    Love the interview and everything included. Thinking I should share this and the book with our congregation. Ironically, I was talking a group of pastors just last night about diversity in our churches. One of them remarked that black people typically don’t have a problem going to predominantly white churches but its not true the other way around. Do you believe that’s a true statement? If so, what do you think may be the resolution? And, are not our churches a makeup of the communities they hold an address in.

    I was thinking about the early church and how, for them, it was mainly pele from the local community. Biblically, outside of the apostolic travels and evangelism, churches were made up of people from within the immediate community. That being the case, is there a real need for our churches to seek diversity? Does God’s word not translate from race to race? It does and it should if we are indeed lead by the spirit. Diversity has to be born in our mind and our hearts through God’s word and by His spirit living in us. That’s what incites fellowship and will make it easy for us to worship together or visit each other’s churches and respect each other’s cultural differences.

    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      August 23, 2013

      Those are good questions, Whitney. As for whites attending black churches, that seems like a potential minefield of foot-in-mouth responses. Which I think reveals the depth of white privilege.

      For a comparison I’m thinking about historically black colleges. But we don’t talk about historically white colleges. It took calling out the National Guard to get James Meredith into one of those historically white colleges. But I don’t recall as much fuss about a white person attending Morehouse.

      I think these questions show how divided our society continues to be over race. In many cases I don’t think it’s racism–but it does reveal our ignorance. And I think that’s the real value of seeking diversity. At best inadvertent prejudice and at worst racism continues because we continue to be divided.

      For more on white privilege I found this article to be helpful.

  • Michael in Dublin
    August 23, 2013

    The whole racism issue has been used for more than 50 years to distort or deflect from the central message of the Bible: How man, who has rebelled against his holy Creator, can be reconciled to him – what God has done to make it possible for people who are his enemies to become his friends.

    The understanding and critique of racism is largely determined by the views of politicians and human rights advocates. Sadly, this has had far more influence in many churches than the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures. J D Hays in “From Every People and Nation” assesses the situation: “Black scholars identify the racial divisions in the Church as ONE OF THE MOST CENTRAL PROBLEMS for Christianity, while many White scholars are saying, ‘What problem?'” (my emphasis).

    The consequence of not following the Scriptures leads to a classification of racism as a horrible sin while other sins are somehow not even half as bad. This is starting at the wrong place. Our starting point needs to be the two great commandments: a wholehearted love of God and a compassionate and caring love for our neighbour and enemy. Whatever action or failure to act transgresses these two commandments is sin and falls under the judgement of God.

    All too often I have heard scholars roundly condemn racism while ignoring many sins that are more prevalent and harmful in their communities. In their obsession with racism these same people tar many words and actions as racist. A simple example: when a white child continually frightens and hurts another white child it is called bullying but if the other child is black it is called racism. Another example: When a young African American father fails to marry and be responsible to provide for and help to raise his child, this hurts far more than the teasing. Why should the observation by a white – of the widespread failure of these young men in his country – be labelled as a racist comment?

    As Christians, we need to speak the truth in love, to declare that all failures to love God and our fellow men are condemned, and to expose race baiters for not having a real concern about the two greatest commandments.

    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      August 23, 2013

      Michael, I can see that race baiting is a problem and not a helpful response. But it sounds like you’re trying to write off racism as something we don’t need to worry about. That feels like a step in the wrong direction, ignoring the very real problems of racism.

      It also sounds like the white scholar saying ‘what problem?’ that you quote, so maybe I’m misunderstanding. ;-)

      The more I read about civil rights in America the more I’m realizing how large of an issue this is. 150 years ago pastors and Christian leaders were enthusiastically supporting slavery. 50 years ago it was racial supremacy and segregation. Evan as society was integrated it’s no wonder our churches remained segregated. Why would you suddenly want to attend a church that’s banned you for your entire life and considered you a second class person?

      It’s all been pretty eye opening for me. Do people overreact to it, sure, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t very real hurts, problems and issues that we need to address with the healing and redemptive power of Christ’s love

  • Trillia
    August 23, 2013

    Hi Whitney,

    Thank you for writing and thank you for reading!

    Your pastor may be on to something. It’s hard for me, as a black woman, to comment on whether it is difficult for whites to enter black churches but it is something worth exploring. My first thoughts would be that it would be a matter of the heart (misunderstanding about race, racism) or it could be partiality or feeling like they might not belong. It could also be a matter of doctrine.

    Yes, great thoughts. I address this in chapter 8. (I touch on the above in the book as week) If you live in a rural homogeneous community chances are you won’t be diverse or you might struggle to be. But I think a good question would be, if it’s at all possible why wouldn’t you pursue it.

    Thank you again for commenting and your desire to share my book with your congregation. Very kind. Blessings- Trillia

  • Tim
    August 24, 2013

    Unfortunately, the civil rights movement has been hijacked by the radical left and is being used to inflict immorality and destruction on the United States. Christians are naive if they can’t see this. The more we glamorize the civil rights movement, the closer we all get to Sodom.

    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      August 26, 2013

      Really Tim? I see quite a bit of immorality in church bombings, lynchings, beatings, KKK terrorism and the daily indignity of enforcing superiority based on skin color.

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