News Story

Learning From the March

January 22, 2014—Fifty years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the “I Have a Dream” speech, members of the Georgetown community are sharing how Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. changed their lives.

On January 22, 2014, Georgetown will host a panel with faculty and staff who were at the March on Washington or knew King. The panel will include Professor of Theology Rev. Raymond Kemp, University Professor of Linguistics Deborah Tannen, McDonough School of Business Professor Richard America, and Rabbi Harold White. Fifteen other professors will incorporate the march into their curricula this month as part of the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service’s Teach the March Initiative.

The 1963 march was one of many protest marches for which Tannen traveled to Washington when she was in high school and college in New York state. “As with the others,” she said, “there were throngs of people, which created something of a sense of confusion about where exactly to go and how to find our bus when it was over.

“But [there was] also an embracing sense of community, of connection to the others who were there, and, most of all, a feeling that we were doing something important, doing our part to make the world a better place,” she continued.

Father Kemp, who was born and raised in Washington, DC, was still in seminary when he attended the march. “I knew there was something wrong in the way the city was set up because the city was segregated,” he said. “It was clear to me that there was a lot going on in civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr. was somebody I was impressed by, especially in his capacity to preach and orate,” Father Kemp said.

Neither Kemp nor Tannen knew that this protest would be different from other gatherings. “I had no sense that it was history in the making, and I certainly had no sense, listening to Dr. King’s speech, that it would be remembered by anyone who wasn’t there—let alone that it would become iconic,” Tannen said.

“And yet,” she added, “I did know that it was special. I recall milling around with friends on the lawn of the Mall, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing; I have a clear memory of standing and moving—and then of hearing Dr. King’s voice delivering those mesmerizing lines,” she continued. “I could not see him; it was only his voice that I was responding to. But the sound of it stopped me dead in my tracks, and I stood stock-still, listening, until he was done. It is the only memory I have of a specific speech that I heard at any march on Washington.”

Many spectators did not realize that the march would become a pivotal moment in history, but the day had lasting effects. “I was not aware that this was ‘the moment.’ But when I think about it, it radically changed my view of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Father Kemp said.

As Father Kemp began to dedicate himself to working in urban communities, he discovered how much work was still to be done years after the March on Washington. In 1968, he was a new priest at St. Augustine Catholic Church in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC. After King’s assassination, Father Kemp stayed up into the morning as looting and rioting broke out in the neighborhood. “The pent-up hostilities that people had were something that no one could control,” he explained. “I finally knew what the struggle was, as more than an idea but as a set of fires burning, ashes, and resentments.”

As his community started to rebuild, Father Kemp felt he had to relearn everything about race, faith, and discrimination. What he learned from his parish at St. Augustine’s and other DC communities eventually became a course that he has taught at Georgetown for nearly 20 years.

In his theology course Struggle and Transcendence, Father Kemp challenges students to examine the vestiges of discrimination that linger in our culture, perceptions, and stereotypes. He hopes students in the course find a greater understanding of themselves and others.

“We take those meanings and values that you grew up with and bring them into a class where [students] can analyze, digest, and see where the strengths, weaknesses, and gaps are in those meanings and values,” Father Kemp explained. “If you can study that, you can begin to figure out people’s capacity for self-transcendence, where you find the insights, gifts, and skills to do a little more … than just what you think you’re supposed to be doing,” he continued.

This continued self-examination, Father Kemp believes, is an essential element in achieving King’s dream. And those who heard King’s dream encourage younger generations to remember the march as more than one day or one speech, but as a prescript for the future: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.”

Related Information

  • January 22, 2014, 4:00 p.m.–5:30 p.m.: Georgetown and the March: A Panel Discussion with Professor Richard America, Rev. Raymond Kemp, Professor Deborah Tannen, and Rabbi Harold White. Special remarks by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC). The panel will be held in Riggs Library.