They wore clerical collars and vestments, their heads covered with kippahs and taqiyahs.
Religious leaders of multiple faiths said Monday in Washington that “the soul of the nation” is at stake and the country must confront its racist past and present. Their opposition to the presidential administration is not about politics, they said, but the moral corrosion of the country that they think has become increasingly evident under President Trump’s White House.
The One Thousand Ministers March for Justice rally, organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, came on the 54th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. It was intended to be a unified moral rebuke to the Trump presidency.
At the same time, evangelical Christians, who largely support Trump, convened nearby at the National Press Club to discuss how to confront racism in the country.
But the rally brought the day’s biggest crowds, with clergy and congregants marching through the streets of downtown Washington.
They didn’t steer far from politics, offering blistering condemnations of the Trump presidency.
“We will not be indifferent when transgender individuals are not allowed to serve in the military,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “We will not be indifferent when a sheriff is pardoned,” a reference to Trump pardoning former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio on Friday.
One speaker criticized evangelical Christian leaders who continue to stand by Trump, saying they have chosen the path of “elitism,” “silence” and “racism.”
Vincent Herring, a 59-year-old Baptist from Maryland, said politics have turned into issues of morality, and people of faith with a moral conscience need to take the lead in challenging racism and moral failings.
“We haven’t been in the forefront of trying to get things done,” he said. “When you identify it as a moral issue, then that’s what needs to be done.”
After the rally, participants marched to the Justice Department, shutting down portions of Constitution Avenue, 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue along the way. Martin Luther King III, Sharpton and D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) helped to lead the march.
Korey Wise, one of five young men wrongfully accused in the 1989 beating of a female jogger in Central Park, attended. That year, Trump — never mentioning the teens by name — referred to the case in spending a reported $85,000 to place ads in New York newspapers demanding the restoration of the death penalty in New York state.
Sharpton said protesters were rallying to show that issues such as voting rights, health care, criminal-justice reform and economic justice are core to American values and should not be caught up in partisan politics.
“It’s time for religious leaders to get freed of their fears and their political laryngitis,” he said. “We believe in a single issue — that is that morality is above political parties.”
Meanwhile, the other group of clergy at the National Press Club also proclaimed that religious leaders should do more to confront racism. The group members, including many who serve on advisory boards convened by the White House, include pastors with conservative political views that often don’t align with those of the Sharpton-led protesters.
Bishop Harry Jackson, who serves on Trump’s informal evangelical advisory board, criticized the “hypocrisy” of the marchers, charging that they don’t want to work with Trump on improving race relations.
“If I want to talk to you, I don’t march down the street to ‘talk’ to you, if you really want access,” he said.
Still, Jackson said he respected Sharpton and other marchers for acting on faith to confront racism.
Two pastors who were part of the conservative news conference, the Rev. Frank Amedia and the Rev. Mark Gonzales, joined the marchers afterward.
Amedia, who founded a group called POTUS Shield to pray for the president, said liberal and conservative members of the clergy share anti-racist goals.
“That’s our meeting point, changing the nation,” he said. “We may not agree on how we get there.”
As the Minister March concluded in front of the Justice Department, more religious leaders delivered short sermons on how society can rise above what they perceive as racial and moral problems.
“We are here for Trayvon Martin. This historical event has brought us here,” said the Rev. Charles Williams, president of the National Action Network’s Michigan chapter. “We are here for Michael Brown. We are here for Philando Castile. We are here to protect voting rights. We are here to tell our president we will not stand for racism and bigotry.”