WASHINGTON, D.C. — Thousands of faith leaders rallied in opposition to racism on Monday, marching through the streets of the nation’s capital to commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. — and preach moral opposition to President Donald Trump.
The protest was organized by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, which called on 1,000 faith leaders to join him in pushing back against racism and Trump while celebrating the 54th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (MLK), Jr’s March on Washington, where the pastor and civil rights leader gave his famous “I Have A Dream Speech.”
But as the crowd amassed this morning near the MLK memorial, it appeared Sharpton got far more than he asked for: Sharpton said more than 3,000 clergy had registered for the event, and thousands of other religious demonstrators filled the space as speakers offered prayers and sermons.
“It’s time for moral leaders of all religions to get rid of their fear,” Sharpton told the swelling crowd, ”[and] to speak up and stand up together.”
The assembly—a sea of collars, stoles, yarmulkes, and other religious garb—featured leaders from across the religious spectrum, with participants claiming Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Unitarian Universalism, and many other faiths.
Despite their differences, demonstrators seemed united in two common causes: condemning racism and resisting Trump.
“When I think about what this president is trying to do with a budget that will cut Medicaid…and do all these things to mostly poor people and people of color, I don’t just want to say no, I want to say hell no!” Rev. Dr. Leslie Copeland-Tune, director of the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative, said. “We are here because we know God is on our side.”
The specter of recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia hung heavy over the event, with many speakers going out of their way to denounce white supremacists who have grabbed headlines in recent weeks. Several participants waved signs with scriptural references such as “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” as well as more overtly political slogans such as “Black Lives Matter.”
“Let me tell the KKK: America is a multi-faith country. American is a multi-racial country. America belongs to all of us!” Dr. Rajwant Singh, co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign, told the crowd.
When demonstrator Rabbi Susan Landau was asked what aspect of her faith compelled her to attend Monday’s event, she laughed, saying, “What about my faith doesn’t compel me to be here?”
Her presence, she explained, was rooted in a concern for America’s soul. “The is the last month of the Jewish calendar, before we start preparing ourselves for the new year. It’s a chance for us to check in with our souls, and also, therefore, to check in with the soul of our country,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do before we’re ready to step into a new year and try to turn things around.”
Rev. Willie Francois III, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in New Jersey and a speaker at the rally, referenced both Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions in his remarks. He listed them in a litany of leaders—including the biblical Pharaoh—whose power was kept in check by the common people.
“I believe in a democracy that the power is not in those who get elected to a position, but the power is actually in those who elect them—the power is in the people,” he later explained to ThinkProgress (Disclosure: Francois attended school with this reporter). “‘We the people’ are responsible for making democracy work, and I always believe, as a student of Black liberation theology, that God is the side of the people. And we understand that we embody that kind of power, which gives us the courage to demand what we deserve from people who think they have power—but really just have positions.”
Speakers also had harsh words for the throngs of mostly white evangelical Christians who remain loyal to Trump, especially the cadre of faith leaders that continue to stick by him despite his numerous controversies. Some expressed frustration with their support for the president in their remarks, and one pastor denounced a few by name.
“We owe an apology that we have allowed evangelicals to distort and bastardize the Bible, and declare erroneously and outright lie that Trump is a man of God,” said Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME as the crowd roared. He went on to name-check some of Trump’s closest religious confidantes, saying: “We repent on behalf of the likes of Paula White, and Perry Stone, and Jerry Falwell, and the board of Liberty University–they do not reflect the body of Christ at large.”
After the rally, attendees filed into a column and marched away from the MLK memorial and past the Washington monument. Participants sang hymns and chanted as the walked, with some shouting “shut it down” as they passed Trump’s hotel in downtown D.C. The assembly concluded outside the Department of Justice, where speakers delivered more remarks to the crowd.
The rally is the latest protest by a resurgent Religious Left, another sign that progressive people of faith are fast becoming a key part of the opposition to Trump. Left-wing religious groups—sometimes joined by conservative faith leaders—have consistently spoken out against Trump’s Muslim ban, cabinet appointments, budget proposals, hardline stance on immigration, attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, among many other issues.