Rep. John Lewis Looks Back, 50 Years After March On Washington

Rep. John Lewis Looks Back, 50 Years After March On Washington

NPR's Here & Now with Congressman John Lewis

August 20, 2013



Well, over the next week, a host of events will be taking place in Washington, D.C., leading up to next Wednesday's 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. More than a quarter-million people turned out for the historic civil rights rally that's largely remembered for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legendary "I Have a Dream" speech.

The march is also credited with giving needed momentum to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Congressman John Lewis, of Georgia, was there that day. He was just 23 years old at the time and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most important groups in the American civil rights movement. Lewis stood near King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and was the youngest speaker of the day.


A. PHILIP RANDOLPH: I have the pleasure to present to this great audience young John Lewis, national chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Brother John Lewis.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: When A. Philip Randolph called my name or introduced me, I went straight to the podium. Then I said to myself - I said, I must go for it. And I started speaking.


LEWIS: We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here...

CHAKRABARTI: Congressman Lewis is the last person alive who spoke on that day. We talked with him about it when he recently visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, in Boston. He began by telling us how Kennedy first reacted when civil rights leaders told him they were planning to march on the nation's capital.

LEWIS: That was back in June, when we met with the president. A. Philip Randolph, this dean of black leadership, this prince of a man, spoke up in his baritone voice, and he said Mr. President, the black masses are restless, and we're going to march on Washington.

You could tell by the body language of President Kennedy he didn't like the idea, someone talking about marching on Washington.

CHAKRABARTI: The march hadn't even been formally planned at that time, right?

LEWIS: Not at all, not at all, but the idea, he thought, of bringing hundreds and thousands of people to Washington, he said if you bring all these people to Washington, won't there be violence and chaos and disorder, and we will never get a civil rights bill through the Congress.

Mr. Randolph responded and said Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protest.

CHAKRABARTI: You were just 23 at the time.

LEWIS: I was 23 years old, I had all of my hair and a few pounds lighter.

CHAKRABARTI: You were speaker number six on that day. First of all, just tell me what you saw.

LEWIS: Hundreds and thousands of young people, students, volunteers, black and white, up in the trees trying to get a better view. Then I looked straight ahead, and I saw so many people. I saw many, many young people and people not so young with their shoes off, their feet in the water trying to cool off on this hot August day.

CHAKRABARTI: Now your speech, Congressman Lewis, on that day, many people think that it's actually as memorable, possibly, as Dr. King's was because Dr. King gave this resounding sermon, almost, about hope and dreams in America. Is it fair to say that your speech was something of a counterpoint about the reality of what was happening in the South at that time?

I mean, in the speech you say that we come here today with a great sense of misgiving...


LEWIS: It is true that we support the administration's civil rights bill. We support it with great reservation, however. Unless Title III is put in this bill, there's nothing to protect the young children and old women who must face police dogs and fire hoses in the South while they engage in peaceful demonstration.

CHAKRABARTI: Basically because you didn't feel that enough was in the civil rights bill to protect people against violence in the South.

LEWIS: I thought it was a little too little and too late. And down in the body of the speech, I said listen, Mr. President, listen members of Congress, wake up, wake up, you're trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it in the courts. I said you tell us to wait, you tell us to be patient...


LEWIS: We are tired, we are tired of being beat by policemen. We're tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you holler be patient. How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now.


LEWIS: But what people really didn't like, near the end of the speech, I said something like if we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day may come when we will not confine our marching on Washington, but we may be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did, nonviolently.

It was oh, no, you can't say that, John. And it was Martin Luther King, Jr., who said to me John, that doesn't sound like you. And we deleted that from the speech.

CHAKRABARTI: And yet it was still so passionate and forthright. I'm asking you about this because we're speaking a half-century later, and it's very easy with that kind of distance to look back on momentous events like this through kind of rose-colored lenses, isn't it? And yet in 1963, there was horrific violence going on in major parts of the country.

There was no guarantee, as President Kennedy said, that the civil rights bill would be passed.

LEWIS: Well, 1963 was an unbelievable year. Hundreds and thousands of people had been arrested and jailed. Bull Connor, the police commissioner in the city of Birmingham, had used dogs and fire hoses on people, little children, on women. We had to act. We had to do something. I remember the morning of August 28, 1963, before we made it to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we met with the leadership of the House, the leadership of the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans.

And then we started walking down Constitution Avenue. We saw hundreds and thousands of people already marching. Now we were supposed to be their leaders. It was almost like saying there go my people, let me catch up with them.

CHAKRABARTI: Congressman Lewis, you are the last living person who gave a speech that day. Is there any part of you that's concerned that there is a page turning now in American history, past that moment of this great social upheaval when it came to equality or reaching for equality in America?

LEWIS: I'm deeply concerned that the present generation failed to grasp what happened. That's why I think it's so important for young people and those not so young to understand that there's a role for them to play. I have this feeling that people are just too quiet. They need to make some noise. And the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is a good opportunity for people to move their feet.

You know, Dr. King said on one occasion there's nothing more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people.


CHAKRABARTI: Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. We'll have more of our conversation with him after the break. Stay with us, HERE AND NOW.


CHAKRABARTI: It's HERE AND NOW. Let's listen now to more of our conversation with Congressman John Lewis. He's the last person still living who spoke at the historic March on Washington in 1963, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next week. The most famous moment from the march was, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s inspirational "I Have a Dream" speech.

Lewis' speech had a different tone. He wasn't afraid to criticize the federal government directly that day, and I asked him about it when we talked recently at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

To me, one of the most powerful and plainspoken moments of your 1963 speech was when you talked about your frustration with the political process. Right, you'll remember these lines, and you said...


LEWIS: By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who built their career on immoral compromise and allow themselves an open forum of political, economic and social exploitation. There are exceptions, of course. We salute those. But what political leader can stand up and say my party is a party of principles, for the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland.


LEWIS: The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party?

CHAKRABARTI: How much of that misgiving do you think remains true today?

LEWIS: Oh, I think in American politics, so much of that still exists today. First of all, there's too much money, too much money. We sell and buy election like we're selling soap. Maybe, just maybe, we should come to that point and have public financing of federal election or maybe state election, maybe local election, and take money out of American politics.

CHAKRABARTI: Easier said than done.

LEWIS: It is easier said. It's very difficult to get it done.

CHAKRABARTI: I saw you in a New York Times video a couple days ago that was - it was a companion to an article in the Times written about you, and when it comes to race in America, you said it's better now than it was in 1963. And that got me thinking: Isn't that also what Chief Justice John Roberts was saying when he wrote that decision overturning key parts of the Voting Rights Act? 'Cause I'm looking at his opinion, and he writes: Our country has changed. While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.

LEWIS: We have changed. We have made progress. But we changed, we made progress because of the Voting Rights Act. Without that act, we wouldn't be where we are today. But before the ink was dried on the paper, states like North Carolina, Texas, Arizona, Mississippi tried to take us back.

I don't want to go back to the days of the literacy tests. When I spoke at the March on Washington, at least in that prepared text, I was reading a copy of the New York Times, and I saw a group of women in a photograph in the Times saying, one man, one vote. So I said, one man, one vote is the Africa cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours.

The vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent instrument or tool that we have, and everybody should be able to use that tool. I know people who died for the right to vote.

CHAKRABARTI: Finally, I want to ask you about the future. You've got a new book out, it's a new memoir, it's the first of three parts. It's called "March Book One," and you've chosen an interesting format to tell this story. What format have you chosen?

LEWIS: Well, we have decided to make it simple, make it plain, make it easier for young people and people not so young to understand what happened.

CHAKRABARTI: It's a graphic novel.

LEWIS: It's a graphic novel. And you can almost taste or feel or smell what is happening. You know, in - talk about growing up, yes, I talk about my parents telling me don't get in trouble, don't get in the way, and Dr. King and Rosa Parks inspired me to go out there and not just walk with the wind but sail against the wind, or to get arrested.

The first time I got arrested, I felt free, I felt liberated. I want young people to read it and to be inspired. 'Cause years ago, a comic book came out, back in 1957, called "Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery Story." It sold for 10 cents. I remember that comic book. I read that book. It inspired me, and it inspired the four students who took seats at a lunch counter on February 1, 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

We all can make a contribution. We all can get in the way. We all can get in good trouble, necessary trouble to change things.

CHAKRABARTI: So what is the unfinished work of August 28, 1963?

LEWIS: That we must complete what we attempted to do during the '60s. Open up America, open up the society and let everybody come in. And end discrimination based on race and color, nationality, sexual orientation and create what I like to call one house, the American house. We all live in the same house. We're one family. We're one people.

CHAKRABARTI: Congressman Lewis, thank you so very much for speaking with me.

LEWIS: Well, thank you very much, thank you so much.

CHAKRABARTI: Congressman John Lewis spoke with us at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.


And as you said, Meghna, lots of events being planned leading up to the anniversary of the March on Washington. A commemorative rally along the same route that marchers took in 1963 will take place at the Lincoln Memorial this Saturday. And next Wednesday, a march on the National Mall. President Obama will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the same place where Martin Luther King and Congressman Lewis spoke 50 years ago.

CHAKRABARTI: And with that in mind we thought we'd listen back to a little more of Lewis' 1963 speech, where he demands that America wake up.


LEWIS: If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our march into Washington. We will march through the South, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham.


LEWIS: But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall send a desegregated South into a thousand pieces, and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say wake up America, wake up for we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.



MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) ...never get tired. You know I'm going to shout, come around the altar. And I'm going to sing, glory halleluiah...

CHAKRABARTI: The incomparable Mahalia Jackson, she sang at the 1963 March on Washington. She sang "How We Got Over." News is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.