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National Conference on Religion and Race

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January 14, 1963 to January 17, 1963

The National Conference on Religion and Race, held at Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel, 14–17 January 1963, brought together representatives of U.S. Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant organizations to discuss America’s racial problems, and was hailed by Martin Luther King as “the most significant and historic [convention] ever held for attacking racial injustice” (Pieza, “Rev. King Urges Boycott”). King gave one of the major speeches at the four-day event, convened to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and subtitled “A Challenge to Justice and Love.”

Initiated by a coalition of the National Council of the Churches, the Synagogue Council of America, and the National Catholic Welfare Conference in April 1962, the conveners invited King to join the steering committee early in the planning process. King accepted the offer and designated Wyatt Tee Walker as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference representative. In an announcement sent to the press in June 1962, organizers described the purpose of the conference as bringing “the joint moral force of the churches and synagogues to bear on the problem of racial segregation” (National Conference, 21 June 1962). The statement further explained that the meeting would “deal with the distinctive role that religion and religious institutions have to play in removing racial segregation and securing acceptance for all Americans” (National Conference, 21 June 1962).

The conference began on Monday, 14 January 1963, with a statement from President John F. Kennedy pledging to do “what is possible to protect and preserve our cherished democratic traditions,” which accord full rights to every American regardless of his race, religion, color, or country of national origin (Schwartz, “Meyer Urges All-Faith Bias Action”). Theologian Abraham J. Heschel then spoke on “The Religious Basis of Equality of Opportunity,” categorizing racism as “universal and evil,” and as “man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking” (McCahill, “Historic Parley on Bias Opens Here”). It was at this convention that Heschel and King first met.

King arrived in Chicago on 16 January, and at a press conference that evening he said that the purpose of the conference was to “rectify past moments of apathy” (Hoffmann, “Rev. King”).

At the close of the conference, attendees adopted “An Appeal to the Conscience of the American People,” which concluded: “We call upon all the American people to work, to pray and to act courageously in the cause of human equality and dignity while there is still time, to eliminate racism permanently and decisively, to seize the historic opportunity the Lord has given us for healing an ancient rupture in the human family, to do this for the glory of God” (“Church Parley Issues Appeal to U.S. Conscience”).


“Church Parley Issues Appeal to U.S. Conscience,” Chicago Defender, 19 January 1963.

Dick Hoffmann, “Rev. King: Take Stand against Prejudice,” Daily Herald, 17 January 1963.

Dolores McCahill, “Historic Parley on Bias Opens Here,” Chicago Sun-Times, 15 January 1963.

National Conference on Religion and Race, Press release, 21 June 1962, MLKJP-GAMK.

Stanley Pieza, “Rev. King Urges Boycott by Churches to Fight Bias,” Chicago’s American, 16 January 1963.

Donald M. Schwartz, “Meyer Urges All-Faith Bias Action,” Chicago Sun-Times, 15 January 1963.