It isn't the day of the Great March itself that reverberates most in John Lewis' memory, but the commotion about his speech.
Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was at 23 the youngest of the so-called Big Six civil rights leaders to address the march. And on the eve of the gathering, a committee member read speech and found a line about "revolution," sparking a long night of trouble and brokering.
"I came back to my room and Bayard Rustin had slipped a note under the door saying there was some concern about my speech," recalled Lewis, who is now a member of the Atlanta, Ga., city council, and whose personal road from the march to politics is considered one of the most valiant in civil rights annals. If there was a record for arrests and beatings in the 1960s, Lewis held it.
Once summoned to the command center at the Statler Hilton Hotel, Lewis heard the objections. The words "revolution" and "the masses," he was told by the NAACP's Roy Wilkins, were inappropriate. But A. Philip Randolph, the dean of the leaders and caller of the march, disagreed with Wilkins.
But those words were not the only red flags the committee saw. "I thought we could not support the proposed Kennedy civil rights legislation," says Lewis. "Some of the leaders didn't like that. They said we were there on the whole question of the right to vote. Well, the Kennedy legislation said a person without a sixth-grade education was an illiterate. I felt it should be only age and residence."
More than the horrors of southern beatings had motivated Lewis. "That week I had seen a television news story coming out of northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, with a sign 'One Man, One Vote.' So I wrote ' "One man, one vote" is the African cry, it should be ours,' " said Lewis.
Two decades later he is still sorting out the fuss. "I was not trying to create a scene. The speech had nothing inflamatory, nor revolutionary," he says. "I was surprised and dismayed. I never got angry, but to put it mildly, I was peeved."
While he did bow to the first round of censorship, that did not prevent some eleventh-hour rewriting.
The next morning, all the March leaders met with the House and Senate leadership. Then, as they were driving away from Capitol Hill, they saw the crowds. "We saw this humanity moving. We were dropped off on the streets, because the people were already moving, and we just joined in," recalls Lewis.
So, the photograph of the line of leadership, which almost every newspaper carried the next day, says Lewis, had really been in the middle of the crowd.
Yet even as Lewis locked his arms with King and Randolph and raised his head in song, Rustin told him there were additional problems with the speech. The Rev. Patrick O'Boyle, the archbishop of Washington, had threatened not to give the invocation if some of Lewis' speech wasn't changed.
Once at the Lincoln Memorial, "We went behind the statue of Lincoln, someone brought a typewriter into the room. I insisted I am speaking for the people I represent. There was some shaking of fingers. Then Randolph said, 'We have come this far together, let's stay together,' " recalls Lewis. "I had said, 'We have been told to stay patient but for many of us, patience is a dirty word.' Rustin said the Catholics were upset because they believed in the word patience."
Cut were his words "In good conscience, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late."
Gone was his accusation that Kennedy "consistently" appointed "racist judges."
Lost was Lewis' call to "march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did . . . Burn Jim Crow to the ground--nonviolently."
Out was his warning: "Not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality " and "I want to know which side the federal government is on."
By the time the rewriting was through, Lewis recalls, "I was a little hot." Now his soft voice is reluctant to rise in anger. "But I was ready to say what I could with all my energy and vigor."
And he did say, "The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater . . . Where is the political party that would make it unnecessary to march on Washington?"
It had been a long journey for Lewis to that day. On a cotton farm outside Troy, Ala., he had been inspired by listening to King on the radio and went on to study theology at American Baptist Seminary. But the necessity of breaking Jim Crow became his overriding motivation.
In 1960, Lewis, then a graduate student at Fisk University, joined several sit-ins around Nashville, Tenn., direct actions that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. Lewis was chairman for three years until ousted by Stokley Carmichael in 1966. Lewis had been one of the first 13 Freedom Riders who left Washington headed for Rock Hill, S.C., Montgomery, Ala., for the South, and was the first to be beaten by antagonists to the marchers.
On the pivotal march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, which he helped King organize, Lewis was beated unconscious on a day that became known as "Bloody Sunday."
The friction over his speech two years before illustrated his split with the estabished leaders, but also marked beginning of Lewis' long battle against those who are a few miles behind his personal vision.
After working in the foundation and community organization areas, Lewis became executive director of the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project. After an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1977, he was appointed by President Carter head of the domestic operations of ACTION.
When he left ACTION three years later, he was quietly outraged over what he felt was the government's negligence toward the poor and the lack of freedom to criticize that insensitivity. "I have found so many people unwilling to take a chance, to take a risk," he said, adding that he felt better outside agitating. He then worked for the National Consumer Cooperative Bank. He was elected to his present post in 1981.
Part of his unyielding dedication to change came from the words of that August afternoon. He stands by his conviction that neither the policies of the Democrats nor of the Republicans have reciprocated any loyalty to blacks.
"It represented the very finest hour, one of the finest hours in the history of this country," says Lewis. "It seemed so long ago, then not so long ago, and somehow so brief."