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‘I Felt That We Had to Be Tough’: John Lewis Remembers the March on Washington

August 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Fifty years ago, 23-year-old John Lewis raised his voice to a crowd of more than 200,000 people at a protest march that would come to represent "the best of America." Gwen Ifill talks to the congressman about what motivated him to become a young civil rights leader and the current state of civil rights and equality in America.
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GWEN IFILL: Next, we turn to another in our continuing series of conversations about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Leon Dukes, now from Upstate New York, was a student at Virginia’s Hampton University in 1963.

LEON DUKES, participated in March on Washington: It was just amazing that 200,000-plus people was just in — just in unity and harmony.

And listening to the people who were doing the speeches and the singing, it was just — it was just awesome. We talked about it. And everyone was lifted up. And we’re coming back on the bus. We were singing. We were laughing. We were talking about the events. We were talking about the future. We were talking about, things are going to change, you know?

And people were saying, one day, we are going to have a president who is going to be an African American. And people were just fore — just foretelling the future because of the excitement of what took place.

I think, when we scattered and left, you could feel the vibration that America now is being infused with all of these change agents. We didn’t know what, but something was going to happen and something good was going to happen. We didn’t know when, where and how, but something was going to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was Leon Dukes from Latham, New York. You can find his story and other firsthand accounts recorded for the Web series Memories of the March produced by public television stations around the country on the PBS Web site Black Culture Connection.

GWEN IFILL: John Lewis was the youngest to address the crowd of more than 200,000 people that day. He remembers the experience now like it happened yesterday. Now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, Lewis’ Capitol Hill office is a living museum, its walls covered with photographs and memorabilia from the civil rights era.

We talked about his experience as one of the so-called big six leaders in the movement.

Congressman, thank you for joining us.

I want to take you back 50 years to the day the March on Washington. You were 23 years old. And you are now the last living speaker from that day. What was that day like? You were on the stage with your heroes.

REP. JOHN LEWIS, D-Ga.: On that day, I was blessed.

I felt like I had been tracked down by some force or some spirit. I will never forget when A. Philip Randolph said, “I now present to you young John Lewis, the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”

And I went to the podium. I looked to my right. I saw many, many young people, staffers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, volunteers. Then I looked to my left. I saw all these young people up in the trees, trying to get a better view of the podium.

Then I looked straight ahead. And I saw so many people with their feet in the water trying to cool off. And then I said to myself, this is it, and I went for it.

GWEN IFILL: You were standing on that same spot. If you go to the Lincoln Memorial today, there is an actual disk that shows where the speeches were given, looking all the way down the Mall to the Capitol.

And — but that was a moment in time. It was what led up to that which brought some of the drama. Your speech wasn’t universally embraced, what you planned to say that day.

JOHN LEWIS: Well, all over the American South, there had been hundreds and thousands of arrests. People had been beaten, jailed. Some people had died in the struggle.

We had met with President Kennedy, six of us, the so-called big six.

GWEN IFILL: And who were the big six?

JOHN LEWIS: A. Philip Randolph was one of the big six. He was the dean of the group, unbelievable man, principle of a man. He was so gifted, so smart, labor leader, spokesperson for civil rights, had organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, born in Jacksonville, Fla., moved to New York.

And then you had Whitney Young of the National Urban League, who was born in Kentucky and later became a social worker and head of the School of Social Work at Atlanta University and just a beautiful human being.

Then it was James Farmer, who had attended Little Wiley College in Texas and Howard University, worked for the NAACP, and later became the head of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, grew up in Minnesota. He was a warrior. He was a fighter. And then young Martin Luther King Jr., born in Georgia, a man that I admired, I loved. He was my inspiration.

GWEN IFILL: And then you?

JOHN LEWIS: And myself.

GWEN IFILL: The youngster.

JOHN LEWIS: I was young. I was very young.

So I grew up very poor in rural Alabama. And growing up, I saw those signs that said, white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting.

And I would come home and ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, why? And they would say, that is the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble. Well, when I was 15 years old in 1955, I heard of Rosa Parks. I heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr. on our radio.

The action of Rosa Parks, the words and leadership of Dr. King inspired me. I was deeply inspired. I wanted to do something. I wanted to bring down those signs.

GWEN IFILL: John F. Kennedy wasn’t — he was not a fan of this march originally.

JOHN LEWIS: He didn’t like the idea of a March on Washington.

When we met with him, A. Philip Randolph spoke up in his baritone voice we met with the president. And he said, “Mr. President, the black masses are restless. And we are going to march on Washington.”

And you could tell by the movement of President Kennedy — he started moving and twisting in his chair. And he said, in effect, that if you bring all these people to Washington, won’t it be violence and chaos and disorder?

Mr. Randolph responded and said, “Mr. President, there’s been orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protests.”

And President Kennedy said, in so many words, I think we are going to have problems. So we left that meeting with President Kennedy. We came out on the lawn at the White House and spoke to the media and said, we had a meaningful and productive meeting with the president of the United States. And we told him we’re going to March on Washington.

And a few days later, July 2, 1963, the six of us met in New York City at the old Roosevelt Hotel. And in that meeting, we made a decision to invite four major white religious and labor leaders to join us in issuing the call for the March on Washington.

GWEN IFILL: And that is why, when you look at the pictures of the march now, it’s remarkable how diverse it was, how many white faces there were, how many black faces there were all mixed in.

JOHN LEWIS: The march was a march for all of America. It was all-inclusive. It was black, and white, Latino, Asian-American, and Native American.

It represented the best of America. People came from all over the place. You saw hundreds and thousands of religious leaders and church people, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish. They came from places like Idaho, Wyoming. All over, they were there carrying their signs.

GWEN IFILL: When you gave your speech that day, you were considered to be a radical. Everybody remembers the “I Have a Dream” speech as being this uplifting speech about togetherness and brotherhood, but yours was a little tougher.

JOHN LEWIS: I felt that we had to be tough.

I had to deliver a speech that reflected the feeling, the views of the young people, and also the views and feelings of the people that was struggling in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Southwest, Georgia, in the Delta of Mississippi.

GWEN IFILL: There was a line in it about marching through the South like Sherman which had to be exercised before you delivered it; isn’t that right?

JOHN LEWIS: It is true that I did have a line in the speech which said, in effect, if we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day will come when we will not confine our marching in Washington, but we may be forced to march through the South, the way Sherman did, nonviolently. The archbishop of Washington, D’Arcy — Archbishop O’Boyle threatened not to give invocation…

GWEN IFILL: Oh, really?

JOHN LEWIS: … if I didn’t delete that part of the speech.

And we had some discussion the evening before the march. And, later, someone came to me and said, that’s their problem with your speech. And they said, we have got to make some changes. You have got to delete something.

And I remember having a discussion with Mr. Wilkins, Roy Wilkins. And I said to Mr. Wilkins, in so many words, I said, Roy, this is my speech. I’m speaking for the young people, speaking for people fresh from jails.

And he sort of dropped it. And then A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. came to me. And we met right on the side of Mr. Lincoln. The music was already playing. Someone had a portable typewriter.

And Dr. King said to me: “John, that doesn’t sound like you.”

And Mr. Randolph said, “John, we have come this far together. Let’s stay together.”

I couldn’t say no to A. Philip Randolph or Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Randolph had been dreaming of a march on Washington since the days of Roosevelt and the days of Truman. So we made those changes. And I deleted all the references to Sherman and sort of suggested that we would be forced to march through some cities, including cities in the North, as well as the South.

GWEN IFILL: So, after the speech was over, you went back to the White House, and this time, the president was a little happier.

JOHN LEWIS: After Dr. King had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, President Kennedy invited us back to the White House.

He was standing in the door of the Oval Office. He was just smiling, almost grinning. He was so pleased. He was so up. It was almost like a father proud of his children. And he stood in the door, and he greeted each one of us. “You did a good job. You did a good job.”

And when he got to Dr. King, he said, “And you had a dream.”

GWEN IFILL: As people celebrate the 50th anniversary in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on voting rights and in the wake of the turmoil this summer over the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case, should people be feeling — not just black people, all Americans — be feeling optimistic or a little bit depressed about the state of race relations right now?

JOHN LEWIS: I think all Americans should be hopeful, and try to be optimistic.

But the American people, people who believe in justice, believe in fairness, believe in equality should be concerned. The decision of the Supreme Court was a major setback. I truly believe that the Supreme Court put a dagger through the heart and soul of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The decision in the Zimmerman case reminded me when I was very young, when Emmett Till was lynched on August 28, 1955. I was 15 years old. I was out in a cornfield working when we heard about what happened.

It brought about a lot of pain and hurt. And I think what we have in America today, pain and hurt. People say, how can something like this happen? How can the Supreme Court do what it did?

But you have to have hope. You have to be optimistic in order to continue to move forward.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN LEWIS: Well, thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Powerful interview.

A new documentary on the March on Washington airs tonight on PBS. Narrated by Denzel Washington, it explores the grassroots efforts leading up to the event, the fears of violence that never came to pass, and the music that was everywhere that day.

Here is an excerpt.

CROWD: Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! 

MAN: The long-awaited march for jobs and freedom on Washington, D.C., has started, and it started early, without its scheduled leaders. About 10 minutes ago, the march began.

MAN: I will tell you, when I began to really feel good was when Joan Baez sang, “We Shall Overcome.” You just felt, this is it. This is OK. This has got it. And you could feel everybody going, yes.  

JOAN BAEZ, musician: He was in some ways my best contribution to the civil rights movement, this — making what I call salt-and-pepper audiences.  

People would come to me years and years later saying they were standing next to somebody from the school and holding hands singing “We Shall Overcome.” Those stories are so moving to me.

(SINGING)

DENZEL WASHINGTON, narrator: By 9:30, 40,000 people were at the meeting point of the march. Cars and buses had arrived from Alabama, Mississippi, and every other Southern state.  

By 10:00, 972 chartered buses and 13 special trains carrying 55,000 people had left New York. By 10:30, 100 buses an hour would be arriving in Washington.