TRANSCRIPT: Rep. John Lewis’s speech on 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

Rep. John Lewis speaks at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. (The Washington Post)
August 28, 2013

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, delivered the following remarks at the “Let Freedom Ring” ceremony to commemorate the event’s 50th anniversary on Aug. 28, 2013, at the Lincoln Memorial.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS (D-GA): President and Mrs. Obama, President Clinton, President Carter, I want to thank Bernice King, the King family and the National Park Service for inviting me here to speak today.

When I look out over this diverse crowd and survey the guests on this platform, it seemed to realize what Otis Redding sang about and what Martin Luther King Jr. preached about. This moment in our history has been a long time coming, but a change has come. (Cheers, applause.)

We are standing here in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln 150 years after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and only 50 years after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

We have come a great distance in this country in the 50 years, but we still have a great distance to go before we fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometime I hear people saying nothing has changed, but for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress makes we want to tell them come and walk in my shoes. (Applause.) Come walk in the shoes of those who were attacked by police dogs, fire hoses and nightsticks, arrested and taken to jail.

I first came to Washington in the same year that President Barack Obama was born, to participate in a Freedom Ride. In 1961, black and white people could not be seated together on a Greyhound bus, so we decided to take a integrated (fashioned ?) ride from here to New Orleans. But we never made it there.

Over 400 of us were arrested and jailed in Mississippi during the Freedom Rides. A bus was set on fire in Anniston, Alabama. We were beaten and arrested and jailed, but we helped bring an end to segregation in public transportation.

I came back here again in June of 1963 with the Big Six as the new chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

We met with President Kennedy who said the fires of frustration were burning throughout America. In 1963, we could not register to vote simply because of the color of our skin. We had to pay a poll tax, pass a so-called literacy test, count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of jelly beans in a jar. Hundreds and thousands of people were arrested and jailed throughout the South for trying to participate in the democratic process. Medgar Evers had been killed in Mississippi.

And that's why we told President Kennedy we intended to march on Washington, to demonstrate the need for equal justice and equal opportunity in America.

On August 28th, 1963, the nation's capital was in a state of emergency. Thousands of troops surrounded the city. Workers was told to stay home that day, liquor stores were closed, but the march was so orderly, so peaceful, it was filled with dignity and self-respect because we believe in the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. People came that day to that march just like they were on their way to religious service. As Mahalia Jackson sang, how we got over, how we got over, she drew thousands of us together in a strange sense. It seemed like the whole place start rocking.

We truly believe that in every human being, even those who -- violent -- who were violent toward us, there was a spark of the divine.

And no person had the right to scar or destroy that spark. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. He taught us to have the power to forgive, the capacity to be reconciled. He taught us to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to find a way to get in the way.

People were inspired by that vision of justice and equality, and they were willing to put their bodies on the line for a greater cause greater than themselves. Not one incident of violence was reported that day. A spirit had engulfed the leadership of the movement and all of its participants.

The spirit of Dr. King's words captured the hearts of people not just around America but around the world. On that day, Martin Luther King, Jr. made a speech, but he also delivered a sermon. He transformed these marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a modern day pulpit. He changed us forever.

After the ceremony was over, President Kennedy invited us back down to the White House. He met us, standing in the door of the Oval Office, and he was beaming like a proud father. As he shook the hands of each one of us, he said, you did a good job, you did a good job. And he said to Dr. King, and you had a dream.

Fifty years later we can ride anywhere we want to ride, we can stay where we want to stay. Those signs that said "white" and "colored" are gone. And you won't see them anymore -- (cheers, applause) -- except in a museum, in a book, on a video.

But there are still invisible signs buried in the hearts in humankind that form a gulf between us. Too many of us still believe our differences define us instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation.

The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop and frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights.

So I say to each of us today, we must never, ever give up. We must, ever give in. We must keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize. (Cheers, applause.)

We did go to jail, but we got the Civil Rights Act. We got the Voting Rights Act. We got the Fair Housing Act. But we must continue to push. We must continue to work, as the late A. Philip Randolph said to organizers for the march in 1963.

And the dean of the civil rights movement once said, we may have come here on different ships, but we all are in the same boat now. So it doesn't matter whether they're black or white, Latino, Asian- American or Native American, whether we or gay or straight -- we are one people, we are one family, we are all living in the same house -- not just the American house, but the the world house. (Cheers, applause.)

And when we finally accept these truths, then we will be able to fulfill Dr. King's dream to build a beloved community, a nation and a world at peace with itself. Thank you very much. (Cheers, applause.)

(Transcript courtesy of Federal News Service.)

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