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At the 1963 March on Washington, civil rights leaders asked John Lewis to tone his speech down

Before his death Friday, Rep. John Lewis was the last living speaker at the march where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ address

As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis speaks at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. (Bettmann Archive)

It was the biggest moment of 23-year-old John Lewis’s life. In just a few minutes, the young civil rights activist would take the podium at the Lincoln Memorial and speak to hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the Mall.

But Lewis, who died Friday at the age of 80, wasn’t savoring the moment. Tucked in a security guard’s office behind the great statue of Abraham Lincoln, he was in the middle of an argument with civil rights icons A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Randolph looked at Lewis, near tears, and pleaded, “I’ve waited my whole life for this opportunity. Please don’t ruin it.”

The young man had a decision to make.

The issue had started the afternoon before the march, almost as soon as Lewis arrived in Washington and checked in at the Hilton on 16th and K streets, where all the organizers were staying. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis would be speaking on the group’s behalf. When his fellow SNCC organizers noticed a table with printed copies for the media of another speaker’s address, they quickly made copies of Lewis’s speech and put it on the same table.

Lewis described what happened soon afterward in his 1998 book, “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.”

When he returned to his hotel room, “I was surprised to find a handwritten note that had been slipped under the door while I was out. ‘John,’ it read, ‘come downstairs. Must see you at once.’ ”

It was from Rustin, the march’s chief organizer.

Rustin told Lewis that someone had delivered a copy of his speech to Patrick O’Boyle, the archbishop of Washington, who was supposed to give the opening invocation.

“O’Boyle was so horrified by what he considered the inflammatory tone of my words that he had contacted the White House — [Justice Department official] Burke Marshall specifically. Then O’Boyle called Rustin and said he would have nothing to do with this event if I was allowed to deliver this speech.”

O’Boyle’s problem, Rustin told him, was that Lewis called “patience” a “dirty and nasty word.”

“This is offensive to the Catholic Church,” Rustin said. “Catholics believe in the word ‘patience.’ ”

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Lewis agreed to remove the line. Rustin cryptically told him that was enough “for now,” and there would be further edits the next day.

The other leaders had reason to worry. The police were on high alert, anticipating the march would descend into violence. Liquor sales had been banned. Thousands of Army paratroopers were on standby, just in case. And though they didn’t know it at the time, D.C. police had rigged the sound system, ready to pull the plug on any speeches they didn’t like.

The next morning, the leaders ate breakfast together, but no one mentioned more edits. Then they all went to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers. Still no mention of edits.

All of a sudden, they received word that marchers had begun marching hours ahead of schedule.

“We’re supposed to be leading them!” Rustin said.

They hurried out to the street to get to the front of the crowd and hold hands, as the leaders usually did, making a show of solidarity for the cameras.

Once they made it to the Lincoln Memorial, Lewis was pushed into the small office behind the statue with leaders of the movement.

Apparently Bobby Kennedy had gotten wind of the speech and was not pleased, they told him. Neither was a union leader. NAACP head Roy Wilkins was livid, demanding changes. Lewis refused.

“He started shaking his finger at me, and I shook mine right back at him,” Lewis recalled.

Rustin pushed everyone outside except for Randolph, King, Lewis and the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake of the National Council of Churches.

King, who had known Lewis since he was a teenager, said he was “surprised” by Lewis’s fiery rhetoric, particularly a reference to Sherman’s march through the South.

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Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) died on July 17, 2020. Here are some highlights from his long political career. (Video: The Washington Post)

Blake didn’t like references to “revolution” and “black masses,” which he dubbed “communist talk.” Randolph defended Lewis, saying he used the words “revolution” and “black masses” himself.

The list of objections went on and on.

Finally, Randolph begged.

“I have waited 22 years for this. I’ve waited all my life for this opportunity. Please don’t ruin it,” he said. “John, we’ve come this far together. Let us stay together.”

“How could I say no? It would be like saying no to Mother Teresa,” Lewis wrote.

He agreed to a line-by-line edit. Somehow, a portable typewriter appeared and they got to work.

In the original version, Lewis opened by boldly declaring SNCC wouldn’t support Kennedy’s civil rights bill, because it didn’t go far enough to protect people from police brutality. That was tempered to: “It is true that we support the administration’s civil rights bill. We support it with great reservation, however.”

The two references to “black masses” was trimmed to one, and “We are now involved in a serious revolution” became “We are involved in a serious social revolution.”

Lastly, Lewis’s original close was supposed to be this:

“The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.”

Any reference to Sherman and “scorched earth” was a suggestion of violence, the other leaders worried. So that was changed, too. “We will march through the South,” it read. “But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.”

In 2014, Lewis recalled to his friend Julian Bond, “It was tough. And at the time I had a sense of sort of righteous indignation. But I got over it.”

Finally, it was his turn. Randolph announced him as “Brother John Lewis.” Rustin stood nearby, smoking a cigarette, “close enough, it felt to yank me away if I got out line.”

“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of,” he began, “for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all.”

The crowd hung on his every word. Decades later, New Yorker editor David Remnick would put it this way: “Certainly King’s speech was the most eloquent that day. But the most ferocious was John Lewis’s.”

In 2016, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) spoke about preparing for the 1961 Freedom Rides and offered advice for those engaging in peaceful protests decades later. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin, Randolph Smith, Rhonda Colvin/The Washington Post)

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