The only surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, Lewis reflects on his involvement—as a then-23-year-old student leader—in what would become a turning point for the civil rights movement.
The March on Washington: 50th Anniversary – Rep. John Lewis
Tavis: Pleased to be joined now by the last surviving person to hit that stage and speak 50 years ago. His speech was so fiery back then they asked him to tone it down, but he is still on the front lines of fighting for freedom and justice in this country.
For many years now a congressman representing the great city of Atlanta, he joins us tonight from Washington. Congressman, we’ve been friends for a lot of years, and I’ve been praying for you the last few days.
I said to some friends of mine the other day that John Lewis survived that beating on Edmund Pettus Bridge. He gave blood for us, but they might kill him working him to death during all these anniversary celebrations. You have been everywhere. But thank you for making time for us on PBS tonight, I really appreciate it.
Rep. John Lewis: Well, thank you so much, my friend and my brother, for having me on tonight.
Tavis: Give me some sense of how you’ve been navigating this emotionally, being reminded and brought back to this place 50 years ago. How you been handling it the last few days?
Lewis: Well, I must tell you, I am more than lucky. I’m very blessed to have an opportunity to reminisce, to think about what happened 50 years ago, and to see all of the interest, especially on the part of the media and young people.
To see so many young children and parents and grandparents bringing out their grandchildren and their own children to think about and to reflect on what happened and how it happened.
To be the last of the Big Six, to be the last of the 10 people that spoke that day, I feel like I’m obligated to do my part to remind people what it was like in America 50 years ago, and especially in the American South. It was a different country, and today you can witness the changes all over America.
Tavis: Indeed, Congressman, there’ve been a great many changes. No doubt about the fact we’ve come a long way. Still a long way to go. So let me ask the inverse of the point you just made a moment ago.
So clearly we’ve made progress, but is there a particular thing about which you are still are most melancholy? The thing that troubles you the most 50 years later with regard to where we have not come or where we’re retreating. What’s mostly disturbing you these days?
Lewis: Well, I’m deeply concerned that in 50 years we have not been able to lay down the burden of race. It’s going to take many more years to lay down the burden of race, but in particular when it comes to employment.
We had high unemployment 50 years ago in the African American community, and we still have high unemployment in the African American community. I’m deeply troubled that so many of our young people, our children, are dropping out of high school.
We need to see that all of our young people, all of our children receive the best possible education, and people need a sense of hope, a sense of optimism, so they will never, ever give up or give in or become bitter or hostile.
But I tell you, the fear that we witnessed 50 years ago, especially in the Deep South, the fear is gone. People are no longer afraid. There were so many people, hundreds and thousands and millions of people were afraid to be afraid. The fear is gone, and that’s a good thing.
People need to stand up and push and pull and get out there and continue to fight, continue to struggle, and to understand that our struggle, our fight, is not just for a few years or 50 years – it is a struggle of a lifetime to make our country a better country and to improve the lives of all of our citizens.
It doesn’t matter whether they’re Black or white, Latino, Asian American, or Native American.
Tavis: I take your point, but how do you respond to one of those young persons who you’ve met – I should say who’s had the honor to meet you over the last couple of weeks as you’ve made all these rounds.
How do you respond to a young person who might say to you, “But Congressman, it’s been 50 years and you’re still talking about high unemployment in Black America? It’s been 50 years and we still can’t get a real conversation in the body that you serve in about poverty.”
Congress will talk about the middle class all day long, but no conversation, much less a plan, to eradicate poverty in America. How do you say – what do you say to those young persons who are excited about the euphoria and the celebration, and they get a chance to go see Dr. King’s monument there in Washington.
But where the data is concerned, they say to you, “We haven’t covered much ground.”
Lewis: Well, I would say to a young person or to a group of young people that come forth you’ve got to say to the Congress, the same way we try to say to the Congress back in 1957, back in 1963, and you continue to preach, you continue to educate, you continue to lobby, to protest, until you get it done.
But the struggle’s not a struggle that lasts for a few days or a few weeks or a few years – not even 50 years. It is a struggle of a lifetime.
It’s an ongoing struggle. They just cannot celebrate. They’ve got to be able to continue to protest and organize and agitate. Back in the past, President Johnson and President Kennedy have said on occasion, “Make me do it. Make me do it.”
You have to make a politician say yes when they may have a desire to say no.
Tavis: But let’s be honest, Congressman Lewis – there are a lot of people in our own community who hear that story of Roosevelt and Johnson and Kennedy and even President Obama has taken to telling this story at fundraisers himself – “Make me do it.”
But I’m trying to see where the willpower is in our own beloved community, our own beloved African American community, to actually push the president on issues that are important to the health and well-being of the Black community.
So we revere this president and we love this president, and I’m not trying to cast aspersion on him. I’m just trying to get a sense of how it is that we take what you said and put it into action to be the wind beneath his wings, to be the wind, the tailwind at his back, to actually push him?
Because people think that just because you push, that somehow you’ve got an agenda where you’re hating on the president. You understand my point?
Lewis: I understand very well. I understand very well. But we have an obligation – all of us, each one of us – to not be so quiet. What I tried to suggest on Saturday.
We have an obligation, a mission, and a mandate to make some noise. I just think in certain quarters we’re just too quiet.
Tavis: Give me some sense for you on a personal note of how it feels to sit in this body every day. You’ve been referred to so many times, and you are, as the conscience of this Congress, of our Congress, given what you have endured over the course of the civil rights struggle.
But how does it feel for you? Does it ever grow old for you, do you ever just kind of forget about it and not really pay attention to it, or are you reminded every day you step into Congress that here’s a body that you were on the outside, protesting to do more, and now you sit inside this body every day?
Lewis: Every day when I go to a committee meeting or walk on the floor of the House to cast a vote, or during the joint session of the Congress, when we have all of the members of the House and Senate present, I feel that somehow, in some way, that how did I get her?
I’m here now. I got to do the best I can every day and every hour to make a contribution. It was much easier for me on the outside. It was much easier protesting. It was much easier getting arrested and going to jail, or being beaten, because I just think it’s the mentality, it’s the climate, it’s the environment.
Sometimes I feel why must we travel down this same road again? Why must we repeat the same blunders and the same mistake? Can we learn? Will we ever learn that we need to –
Tavis: But that’s a damning indictment of Congress, when you say it was easier being a protester and getting beat upside the head than it is trying to navigate the halls of Congress to get good public policy passed.
Lewis: Well, it was easier to – it was so clear. You saw those signs that said “White waiting,” “Colored waiting,” “White man,” colored – you knew what you had to do.
Tavis: Right, right.
Lewis: But I think sometimes that people and individuals, they wake up some morning after dreaming bad dreams saying, “What can I do to get to someone today? What can I do to bring someone down?” rather than saying, “What can I do to help someone? What can I do to stop spending so much money and resources on bombs and missiles and guns rather than spending resources on lifting the lives of people, improving their condition?”
More resources for education, for healthcare, for food, to end hunger and poverty. In spite of all of the changes, in spite of all of the progress we’ve made as a nation and as a people, there’s hundreds and thousands and millions of our people that have been left out and left behind. The Congress needs to understand that.
Tavis: Congressman, you are a long-distance runner, a lifelong fighter for justice and freedom, and it’s never, ever lost on me whenever I’m in your company, in person, or whenever I have you on this TV or my radio programs, the sacrifices you’ve made for all of us as Americans.
So once again, on his historic anniversary eve, thank you for coming on this program, and thank you for your life and ongoing legacy, sir.
Lewis: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.
Tavis: That’s our show tonight. Please join us tomorrow night for a look at how America has changed in the 50 years since the march, or not changed in some ways. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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