Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. The then-23-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee represented the young, aggressive arm of the civil rights movement that was working in the deep South. SNCC had grown impatient with the slow pace of progress, and Lewis used his time at the podium to convey that restlessness. ‘‘We want our freedom and we want it now,’’ he said. His speech,which contained notes of militancy, was a point of tension in the hours preceding the historic march. Lewis recounted his memories of the time in a wide-ranging conversation with The Washington Post this summer.
From the very outset of the modern-day civil right movement there was a conscious deliberate effort to make the movement a truly interracial movement because those of us that came out of the Southern wing of the movement were committed to this idea of a beloved community. That’s what Dr. King taught us. That’s what he preached about.
[In Nashville] every Tuesday night, 20 or 30 students would meet at a Methodist church. There we became imbued with the philosophy of nonviolence. We created a circle of trust, a band of brothers and sisters. ...If people were committed to the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence, committed to the idea of an integrated society, you could look beyond the question of race.
When you’d be sitting at a lunch counter and someone would spit on you or pour hot coffee on you or pull you off the lunch counter stool, they didn’t just pick on you or harass you or try to abuse you simply because you happen to be African American. If one of your white brothers or sisters were participating, they received the same abuse and sometime the abuse that they received was much stronger. Because a lot of white Southerners thought that they were betraying them, they were turncoats. I don’t want to use the word. But they were called N-lovers.
So when I came here to go on the Freedom Rides in May of 1961, there were seven whites and six African Americans. Blacks and whites could board a Trailways bus and be seated together in Washington, D.C., but that changed as you went south. The Freedom Ride became one of the most integrated efforts during that period. By the time they got to Montgomery... they were beaten by an angry mob. They even beat the reporters.The white participants, they would single them out during the Freedom Rides. During the sit-in many were severely beaten and seriously injured.
We met with President Kennedy in June of 1963. In that meeting there were just the six African American leaders, and we were called the “Big Six.” President Kennedy wanted to meet with us because of all of the turmoil and discontent and frustration that was burning all across the country. I hadn’t heard anyone say anything about a March on Washington. All of a sudden in the meeting A. Philip Randolph spoke up in his baritone and said, “Mr. President, the black masses are restless, and we are going to march on Washington.” You could tell President Kennedy didn’t like that idea. He started turning in his chair and moving around.
He said, “Brother Randolph — or Mr. Randolph — if you bring all of these people to Washington, won’t there be violence and chaos and we will never get a civil rights bill through Congress?” and Mr. Randolph responded by saying, “Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful and nonviolent protest.”
We came out on the lawn and spoke to the press. We said “We had a meaningful and productive meeting with the president. We are going to march on Washington.” Randolph was the spokesperson.
We met in New York on July 2, 1963, at the Roosevelt Hotel. From that meeting, we invited four major white religious and labor leaders to join us. I don’t want to open up old wounds, but one major labor leader refused to sign on. Walter Reuther, the head of the UAW, signed on. In the meantime, Dr. King had already participated in a march in Detroit with Walter Reuther and Rev. C.L. Franklin.
It was there that he used the phrase “I have a dream.”
It was important that we include religious leaders, because we were trying to build what we call a coalition of conscience and it was important that we get the different church groups, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish. You had Eugene Carson Blake. Matthew Ahmann, who was from Chicago. Rabbi Joachim Prinz of Newark.
Somehow, some way, we worked well together. The six of us plus the four. We became like brothers. Randolph would say things like, “Brothers, let’s stay together.”
There was some debate about whether Bayard Rustin should be the chair of the march or the chief organizer of the march. Some people objected to Bayard Rustin being the chair because he had been once arrested on moral charges. Also there were accusations that he had once been associated with the Young Communist Party. We didn’t want anything to smear the march. We selected Randolph to be the chair and let him choose his deputy, and we knew he would select Bayard Rustin.
People went all across America. A guy like Eugene Carson Blake had so many contacts with religious leaders. On the day of the march, people had signs: “The churches of Iowa,” “The churches of Minnesota.” The Jewish community responded. Organized labor responded.
Many of the people that provided security — if you look at some of those old photographs you see the guys with the little caps — they were labor out of New York.
Then there was Rachelle Horowitz, the transportation coordination. We could call almost anytime of day, anytime of night and say, “Rochelle: How many people are coming out of New York? How many people are coming out of Philadelphia? How many people are coming out Boston? How many people are going to be on that train coming out of New Orleans? How many buses?” And she could give us a count.
The NAACP, the Urban League, the CORE people, the SNCC people, ministers, the churches, the black churches and many of the white churches were tied in to come, and they showed up in force, too.
Sometimes I say that the movement during that time became almost a religious movement. People looked like they were going to church. They put on their best. The heard the call, they responded. It was like a great camp meeting.
I tell you, Dr. King, he preached that day. He knew he was preaching. He knew he was getting over. During the delivery of that speech, I think most people felt we were prepared and ready to march into Hell’s fire. You had been lifted, you had been inspired.
On that morning, early that morning, the ten of us came up to Capitol Hill and we met with the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, the chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, speakers, Majority Leaders. Democrats and Republicans.
We were on Constitution Avenue, the ten of us, and we were prepared to march to the Lincoln Memorial. We were supposed to be leading the march, they were already marching. It was like: “There go my people. Let me catch up with them.” They kind of just pushed us.
When A. Philip Randolph introduced me, I stood up and I went to the podium. I looked to my right, and I saw all of SNCC, saw young men up in the trees.
I looked straight ahead, and I saw all of these people, men and women, they had their feet, their legs in the water trying to cool off. Black, white. Then I said: “This is it. Let’s start speaking.”
We all had to prepare a speech. It was supposed to be a certain length.
The SNCC communications director made advanced copies of the speech available, and it got out. Most of us stayed at the Capitol Hilton at 16th and K. Dr. King stayed at the Willard. During that evening, a note was put under my door at the hotel, and it was from Bayard Rustin, saying in effect: “John, some have a problem with your speech, and there will be a meeting. We want you to come to the meeting.” It was about 11 p.m. I was trying to go in early to get a good night’s sleep. I got the note, and I went downstairs and there was several representatives there. Dr. King was not in that meeting.
SNCC field secretary Courtland Cox was there. I said this speech represents the people that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee has been working with in the black belt of Alabama, in Mississippi, in southwest Georgia. They wanted me to speak not only for them. but for the indigenous people in these states. In the original speech I said: “In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality. This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations,” or something to that effect.
Then I went on: “You tell us to wait. We cannot be patient.” I said, “We want our freedom, and we want it now.”
So Bayard Rustin was being really facetious and cynical. He said: “John, you cannot say you cannot be patient. The Catholic Church believes in being patient.” I think he was just sort of playing on words and thought it was an easy thing to sort of compromise on.
Down further in the speech, I talked about the fact that we were involved in a serious revolution and that the black masses were restless. I got that from A. Philip Randolph
They wanted me to delete that. At the bottom, near the end of the speech, I said something like: “If we don’t see meaningful progress here today, there will come a day when we will not confine our marching to the South. We will be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did — nonviolently.”
And people objected to that, they thought it was inflammatory.
The next day when we arrived, around 1 p.m. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Bayard and Mr. Randolph said the archbishop still would not give the invocation. It has always been rumored that the archbishop was very close to Robert Kennedy and President Kennedy. Some people felt that someone in the Kennedy administration said not to give the invocation if those lines stayed in the speech.
I was resisting it. That was the urging of the SNCC people. They were saying: “This is John’s speech. This represents the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They’re not asking anyone else to change their speech.”
And I remember Mr. [Roy] Wilkins coming over and saying ‘Why can’t we change that?’ And we had the pointing of fingers, and I said to them, “This is our speech. This is my speech.” And he sort of backed off. Then Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph got in there. And Dr. King said, “John, this doesn’t sound like you.” And then Mr. Randolph said: “John, for the sake of unity — We’ve come together. Let’s stay together. Can we change this?”
So I dropped all reference to Sherman marching through the South.
I remember Bayard Rustin saying at one time … he was concerned about the logistics more than anything else, and I’ve heard this several times since. Even, I heard it today that the Kennedy administration had someone waiting to pull the sound system as I spoke.
All of the liquor stores were closed. None of the police officers could be on leave. There were several thousand troops surrounding the city just in case there was an outbreak of violence.
Everything was so orderly, so peaceful, so quiet. It was more like a day of jubilee.
I met Malcolm X for the first time the night before the march. He was in the lobby of the Capitol Hilton. And after the march was all over, I know he accused us of giving in to a white president or something like that. He said it was supposed to be a march and we allowed it to become a picnic.
For that crowd to be interracial it sent a message that this movement was not just about African Americans. It was about all Americans. To see that presence of blacks and whites, I don’t think people had seen that in America before.
Some of the media and park police said 250,000. I think it was many, many more people. When the program was all over, there were still people trying to get into Washington. ... White and black people from all over take great pride in saying, “I was there.”
President Kennedy was so proud at the end of the march. He was beaming like a proud father. He was almost giddy. He went around, he shook every single hand. He said: “You did a good job. You did a good job,” and when he got to Dr. King, he said “And you had a dream.”
The history of the whole struggle is embodied in that day.