Years Later, Lewis Watches History Being Made

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 27 -- When the Democratic Party officially nominated Barack Obama for the presidency Wednesday night, a 68-year-old son of Alabama sharecroppers sat in section 122 of the Pepsi Center, pondering a time when the scene before him was utterly inconceivable.

Forty-five years ago Thursday, Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) was a young civil rights leader sharing the stage at the Lincoln Memorial with Martin Luther King Jr., as his mentor delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech. As a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis was more radical at the time, and the speech he delivered that day was far more heated than King's. But Lewis's goals were modest: protecting blacks from racially motivated violence, equalizing educational opportunity, and ending the literacy test and other barriers to voting.

Electing an African American to the White House wasn't exactly on the radar screen. "You didn't even think about it, you didn't talk about it," Lewis said. "People were struggling, struggling for the right to vote, to end segregation. In many parts of the American South, people were so afraid -- they were afraid to be afraid."

Lewis is the only surviving speaker from that day on the rostrum, and all this week he has hurried between March on Washington commemorations and Democratic National Convention events, a singular presence for African American Democrats who are experiencing this week in a larger context.

He played a starring role in a video tribute to Edward M. Kennedy on Monday night, recalling the ailing Senate icon's civil rights record, almost as long as his own. He cried when Michelle Obama told delegates later that night that it was time to "stop doubting and start dreaming."

He broke down again during a network interview in the empty convention hall Wednesday morning while reminiscing about King and tracing Obama's ascent to his legacy. "I'm not sure there are any tears left," Lewis said.

He wasn't always on Obama's team. Last fall, Lewis endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton, a major coup for the New York senator because it suggested that some older, civil-rights-era black leaders lacked confidence in Obama's chances and were not as comfortable with someone who was younger and the son of a white mother and African father.

But then Obama started winning. "As the drama of the primary unfolded, more and more, what Barack Obama's campaign did and what it was saying to the country and to me personally was so akin to the movement," Lewis said. "This is what we fought for. This is what we almost died for, and some did die for. So I had an executive session with myself and said, 'I don't want to be on the wrong side of history.' "

Lewis was born in Alabama and attended a Baptist seminary, where he joined SNCC, a younger and fiestier version of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He wasn't the headliner on Aug. 28, 1963, when nearly 250,000 people gathered on the Mall -- that was King. Lewis was the wild card, and his speech had the tough and angry edge of a radical.

"The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery," Lewis exhorted to the crowd. "To those who have said, 'Be patient and wait,' we must say that 'patience' is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence."

The first draft of the speech included language so heated that officials of the John F. Kennedy administration and some of Lewis's fellow speakers asked him to make changes. Among the cuts that Lewis agreed to make was a description of the civil rights bill that the president was attempting to pass as "too little and too late."

Lewis entered politics when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981 and won a House seat in 1986. Over the years, the edges softened and he became a beloved elder statesman. He developed a close relationship with President Bill Clinton, a bond that compelled him to endorse Hillary Clinton over Obama in October, creating more controversy than he had stirred in decades.

He has no regrets. "I was deeply committed to her," Lewis said. "First of all I think she's so smart, so gifted, but she's also been a wonderful friend, along with her husband. They've been like family. And I thought she would make a great president."

Along with other African American leaders, Lewis began to have second thoughts after Obama won the Iowa caucus and South Carolina primary, with strong support from both black and white voters. He started to look less like a fluke, and more as part of a continuum.

"Some people think Barack Obama just appeared on the scene overnight, but it was a movement, a struggle, that produced this man, that created a climate for this personality to emerge," Lewis said. "In him is the embodiment of the hopes and dreams and aspirations and suffering of so many people. People say he's not of the civil rights movement. But he's a byproduct of that movement, and there's no way you can forget that."

Lewis said he is pleased with Obama's campaign so far, but that he is under-performing. Whether race is a factor in the closeness of the polls, he can't say for sure.

"I would like to think that most Americans would not see him as a black candidate for president, but as the Democratic candidate for president, and it would come to that point where we can lay down the burden of race," Lewis said. "Some people cannot bring themselves to vote for a person of color. But I'm very hopeful, very optimistic."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company