Bill Moyers and Rep. John Lewis: 50 Years After the March on Washington, America Is a Long Way from True Equality
Bill Moyers and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) met to share experiences and revelations about the momentous March on Washington both attended 50 years ago.
Their discussion takes them to the spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial where Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, and others famously spoke about freedom and justice, creating critical momentum for both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. While there, Moyers and Lewis attract the attention of schoolchildren, and conduct a spontaneous living history lesson.
The March on Washington is largely remembered for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The 23-year-old Lewis, newly named to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the youngest of the featured speakers, but among the most defiant.
Now a 14-term congressman from Georgia, Lewis shares new insight into how the event unfolded — including last-minute conflicts over his own manuscript. He also discusses the continuing challenges to racial and economic equality, and his unwavering dedication to nonviolence and brotherly love as a means toward a more just end — even when facing inevitable violence and brutality.
“To look out and see the best of America convinced me more than anything else that this is the product, this is the work of the movement,” Lewis tells Bill. “Sometimes you have to not just dream about what could be — you get out and push and you pull and you preach. And you create a climate and environment to get those in high places, to get men and women of good will in power to act.”
Threading rarely-seen documentary footage into their conversation, Bill — who was deputy director of the newly-created Peace Corps at the time — also shared his own memories of the day. He concluded with an essay about how the goal of equal rights and opportunities for all Americans — so championed at the March on Washington — continues to elude us.
“But for a few hours that day,” Bill says, “we could imagine what this country might yet become.”
Full transcript of the interview with Lewis and BIll Moyers' essay appear below the video:
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. For each of us, there are days that are turning points. A day that changes our personal life, or a day that changes the nation. Sometimes, very rarely, it’s one and the same day. Just such a day happened to me on Wednesday, August 28, 1963. I was 29 years old, the deputy director of the Peace Corps, with offices one block from the White House and a short walk from the Lincoln Memorial. That morning, largely on impulse, inspired by a friend, I joined the quarter of a million Americans, people of every age and color, who had come for the March on Washington.
The event is now most famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” but like many of the others there, I was first transfixed by one of the other speakers, the youngest on the platform.
A. PHILIP RANDOLPH: Brother John Lewis…
BILL MOYERS: His name was John Lewis. He had just been named head of SNCC – the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- and he was 23 years old. I will never forget the speech he delivered that day.
JOHN LEWIS: We must get in this revolution, and complete the revolution. For in the Delta of Mississippi, in Southwest Georgia, the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and all over this nation, the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom.
BILL MOYERS: In the five decades since, John Lewis has become an icon of the civil rights movement, a hero who faced down brutal Southern police in the name of freedom and was beaten bloody for daring to do so. Today, he is a fourteen-term Congressman from Georgia. Recently, he and I returned to the National Mall in Washington to remember that day in 1963 and the march that changed America.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: People were all the way down. And you just saw hundreds and thousands of individuals.
I'm John Lewis. And I was the youngest speaker. Ten of us spoke. I spoke number six. Dr. King spoke number 10. And out of the 10 people that spoke that day, I'm the only one still around.
CHILD #1: Congratulations.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: What's that?
BILL MOYERS: Congratulations.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Thank you very much.
BILL MOYERS: It was a great moment in American life.
CHILD #1: You were his friend?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Yeah. I got to know Dr. King. I met him in 1958 when I was 18. But I first heard of him when I was 15 years old in the 10th grade. We worked together. We marched together. We got arrested together in Selma, Alabama.
BILL MOYERS: Have you ever heard this story before?
CHILD #2: Yes, I have.
BILL MOYERS: You have?
CHILD #2: I watched it on TV.
BILL MOYERS: You did?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: So you know about the sit-ins? The Freedom Ride?
CHILD #2: Yeah.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: People marching for the right to vote? You know, I was on the march from Selma to Montgomery. I was beaten.
On March 7, 1965, a group of us, about 600 people, black and white, many young people, some people who had just left church, decided to march from Selma to Montgomery, about 50 miles away, because people of color, black people in Alabama, couldn't register to vote simply because of the color of their skin.
And we decided to march across the Alabama River, a bridge called the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And we got to the highest point on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and we looked over and we saw a sea of blue, Alabama state troopers. And we got within hearing distance of the state trooper. And Major John Clyde of the Alabama state troopers. “This is an unlawful march. It would not be allowed to continue.”
MAJOR JOHN CLYDE from EYES ON THE PRIZE: This is an unlawful assembly. You have to disperse. You have orders to disperse.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: And the young man walking beside me, who was working with Dr. King, said, "Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray."
And the major said, "Troopers advance."
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. Had a concussion at the bridge. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die.
BILL MOYERS: And when you were attacked by the police, when you were beaten, when you were almost killed, you didn't think a moment of responding, replying violently?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: No, never because we studied the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence. One of the people that beat me on the Freedom Ride in 1961 in South Carolina came to my office later with his son. His son had been encouraging his father to do it. And he said, "Mr. Lewis, I'm one of the people that beat you and left you bloody. Will you forgive me? I want to apologize." His son started crying. He started crying. I started crying. He hugged me. I hugged him. He called me brother. I called him brother.
BILL MOYERS: And today he's the only survivor of the group of leaders who spoke up here on August 28, 1963. Let's go up and look at the spot.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Thank you. Good to see you.
You have to find the spot.
BILL MOYERS: Where is the spot? Here it is.
When you finished that speech you got a great ovation and you walked back to your seat. What were you thinking?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, I was thinking to myself, "How did it go?" And I said to myself, "I think it went well." And the young people in SNCC, I got the reading from them. They were cheering and they were, really they enjoyed it. And they were glad that I made it through the speech I think.
BILL MOYERS: Do you know about the March on Washington?
CHILD #3: It's the 50th anniversary, right?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: The 50th anniversary is August the 28th. We will celebrate and commemorate the 50th anniversary.
BILL MOYERS: He was standing right here where you're standing now looking out there. That's the crowd.
CHILD #3: Are you in that picture?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Well, here he is. That's young John Lewis.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: That's me there.
It was good to be in the presence of Lincoln. To be -- I felt very honored to be there on that day 50 years ago. And I feel honored to have an opportunity to come here almost 50 years later.
MALE VOICE #1: Five, four, three, two, one.
MALE VOICE #2: Testing, ten nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: On that morning, August 28th, 1963, 50 years ago, I knew that I had to try to do my best, my very best. So, early that morning we came to Capitol Hill as a group. We went on over and met with the Democratic and Republican leadership.
And then, we came down Constitution Avenue.
BILL MOYERS: Walking?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Walking.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: It was the so-called Big Six, plus four major white religious and labor leaders that had been invited to issue the call for the March on Washington.
BILL MOYERS: Well, this is the picture I have of the leaders. Were you leaving Capitol Hill then?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Here, we were leaving Capitol Hill. It was unreal. It was unbelievable. When we got to this point, the people were already walking. And a sea of humanity, we just saw hundreds and thousands of people coming toward Union Station. And they literally pushed us toward the Washington Monument, and then on toward the Lincoln Memorial.
On that first part of the march, it was the people, not the leaders. We were followers.
BILL MOYERS: Call out their names for us.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, here you have young John Lewis.
Twenty-three. Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Mathew Ahmann, who was from the Catholic Council for Interracial Justice from the city of Chicago. And here is Floyd McKissick. Floyd McKissick was the chair of the board of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. He was standing in for James Farmer, who was the executive director of CORE. Well, Farmer was in jail in Louisiana and refused to come out of jail to participate in the march.
And here is Martin Luther King, Jr. A wonderful human being. He was my leader, my inspiration, my hero. I first met him in 1958 when I was 18 years old. This is Eugene Carson Blake, who was head of the National Council of Churches.
And here, this young man here is Cleveland Robinson. This man was almost blind, but no one wanted to say to him, "But you cannot walk with the group." And, so, he walked with us. This is Rabbi Joachim Prince of the American Jewish Congress.
He was born in Berlin and moved to America during the late 30s. He moved to Newark, New Jersey, and became a leader, a spokesperson for civil liberty, civil rights. And this is Joe Rauh. He was one of the unbelievable leaders in the NAACP. And this is unbelievable Whitney Young, who was head of the National Urban League.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Who's been a dean at the School of Social Work at Atlanta University. Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP. Walter Reuther, the head of the United Automobile Workers Union.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: And this is A. Philip Randolph.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: He was born in Jacksonville, Florida, moved to New York, and organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He was our leader. He was our dean. We called him the dean of black leadership. He was a principle of a man.
BILL MOYERS: So, when you look back what comes to your mind?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: An awesome day. An unbelievable day. A moment in American history when people came together and heard and saw Martin Luther King Jr., deliver that magnificent “I Have a Dream” speech. I will never forget just standing on those steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out.
There was a wonderful spirit. You looked out, just saw the signs from organizations, from church groups, labor groups, youth groups. It was black and white. I think it represented one of the finest hours in American history.
BILL MOYERS: What struck me about the speeches that unfolded that morning were that they weren't just about segregation. They were about an egalitarian vision of America, white and black, that was part of the social gospel that all of you seemed to be preaching. That there was something larger than ending segregation, as important as that was.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I believe I used a line in my own speech when I suggested we must seek more than mere civil rights, but we must seek to create a community. We must -- a sense of brotherhood. And the day I was there. We were trying to create and move us toward the creating of a beloved community.
BILL MOYERS: It was a universal vision that unfolded in speech after speech.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: It was an all-inclusive message, a message for all Americans. So, it didn't matter whether we were black or white, Latino, or Asian-American, or Native American. It was -- and that's what Dr. King had the ability to do in his own speech. He delivered a sermon. And I think, in a sense, we all were delivering small sermons. He had the ability, more than any of us, to transform the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a modern-day pulpit. And he knew he was preaching.
BILL MOYERS: So, what was going through your mind early in the morning?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Early in the morning I kept thinking, "Is it going be okay? Is it going be all right?" I was not concerned about whether it was going to be peaceful because I believed that the people, especially those coming out of the South, had been touched by the spirit of the movement.
They were committed to the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. And so many of these people came from the religious community. They came out of churches. They came from synagogues. They came from temples. They were people of faith. And they believed to have a rabbi, a minister, and other people that represented the essence of the social gospel. I knew it was going to be all right.
BILL MOYERS: But you know, the city was tense. I drove in every morning, commuted from Virginia. Usually the traffic is bumper to bumper, stop and start-- creeping slowly along. But I sailed in that morning because 2/3 of the people working in the District stayed home out of fear of the violence that had been talked about.
And as you probably remember 15,000 paratroopers were called up on the ready. Police leaves were canceled, including for the suburban police. All liquor sales were banned in the city. They even stopped the Major League baseball game from being played that afternoon.
And the police, I don't know if you ever knew this. The police were so nervous that they rigged your sound system in case they had to take it over when violence erupted. So, you may have been calm, but there was a fear in the heart of the city that things were going to go badly.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I didn't think there was going to be any violence or any disorder. It was the spirit. It was the spirit that engulfed the leadership and engulfed the participant. So many other people came like they were on their way to a religious service. It was like, almost like a camp meeting. And a lot of the people dressed like they were going to church.
It was almost spiritual to hear Mahalia Jackson stand and sing “How We Got Over.” And the place in a strange sense, started rocking. So somehow and some way, it had been instilled in the very being of the participant that we must follow the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence.
BILL MOYERS: There are people everywhere as far as the eye can see, extending in a mile. And there's music, Odetta, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul and Mary.
Celebrities, Jackie Robinson, Paul Newman, Josephine Baker, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Charlton Heston, Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando. The celebrities were everywhere. But what seemed to have gripped you as you spoke, and as you've written and talked about, in a sense, was those thousands upon thousands of nameless, ordinary people who were out there.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: It was unreal, unbelievable. When I got up to speak, I can see the people, the young people. I can see those middle aged and older people. I can see some members of Congress down near the foot of the podium. It was a sea of humanity.
BILL MOYERS: Were you intimidated? You were only 23. You had only been head of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, for what, a few weeks?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Only a few weeks. And my first responsibility was to travel to Washington. We had a meeting with President Kennedy in the Oval Office of the White House. And we told him we were going to march on Washington.
You know, President Kennedy didn't like the idea of hundreds and thousands of people coming to Washington. And he said to Mr. Randolph, who was our spokesperson, "If you bring these, all these people to Washington, won't there be violence and chaos and disorder? And we will never get a civil rights bill through the Congress."
Mr. Randolph responded and said, in his baritone voice, "Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protest." We left that meeting, came out on the lawn of the White House, and said we had a meaningful and productive meeting with the President of the United State. And we told him we were going to march on Washington.
BILL MOYERS: Can you sum up what was going on in America at that time that led to the march that had people like John Kennedy worried and people like you adamant about what had to be done?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, the years leading up to the March on Washington had been unbelievable amount of action on the part of the movement. People had been sitting in lunch counters, standing in at theatres. People had been arrested and jailed by the hundreds and thousands.
People had been beaten. The signs that said, "White and colored." "White waiting." "Colored waiting." "White men." "Colored men. " "White women." "Colored women," they were still around. Medgar Evers had been assassinated in Mississippi in June of 1963.
Bull Connor, the police commissioner of the city of Birmingham had used dogs and fire hoses on children, women in the streets of Birmingham. Hundreds and thousand of young people, young children, had been arrested and jailed in the city of Birmingham. People couldn't register to vote simple because of the color of their skin. Back in 1961, '62, '63, people had to pass a so-called literacy test in my native state of Alabama. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. Another occasion, a man was asked to count the number of jellybeans in a jar.
BILL MOYERS: Before he would be allowed to register?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Register. And there was black doctors, lawyers, college professors, high school principals, maids, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, stood in unmovable lines all across the South. Were denied the right to participate simply because of the color of their skin.
BILL MOYERS: You lived a very frenetic schedule in the months leading up to the march. You were in all the hot spots, from Arkansas to Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina, but in your speech you made a reference to Danville, Virginia.
I remember your describing the authorities, the police in Danville breaking through the doors of a church in Danville in order to arrest the marchers, the protesters there. That was common, wasn't it they'd seek them out, wherever they were?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: It didn't matter whether it was a church, a community center. It was the harassment, intimidation. They wanted to stop people, to make it almost impossible for people to exercise their constitutional right. We had to continue to say to people, "You have a right to protest." Dr. King would say, "You have a right to protest for what is right in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent manner."
And many of the young people that came out of the deep South, out of Nashville, where we came under the influence of a man like Jim Lawson, we accepted nonviolence not simply as a technique or as a tactic, but as a way of life, as a way of living. We wanted to build what we called the beloved community, a community at peace with itself. In a sense where you forget about race and color and see people as people, as human beings. In SNCC, we started calling ourselves a circle of trust.
BILL MOYERS: A circle?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Of trust. A band of brothers and sisters, that you have to respect the dignity and the words of every human being. So you could not strike someone or hit someone, even have an evil thought or even consider. And we truly believed there's a spark of the divine in every single one of us and that you don't have a right to scar or destroy that spark. So, you must be respectful of every human being.
BILL MOYERS: You know, you've always had a way of refusing to let fear take control of your life. What do you owe that to?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Someplace along the way, growing up in rural Alabama I came to the conclusion that you must not be afraid. You must not be afraid. And in the Movement, the sit-ins, the freedom rides before the March on Washington when I was beaten and left bloody and unconscious in Montgomery at that Greyhound Bus Station and almost died, I became more determined than ever that I would never ever be afraid.
BILL MOYERS: Why? Where did that come from?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: It's studying the philosophy of non-violence, studying the great religions of the world, studying Gandhi and Thoreau and listening to the words of Martin Luther King Jr. You cannot be afraid. You cannot live in fear.
BILL MOYERS: You're lost when you live in fear. It's over for you, right?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, it's -- to live in fear is, like you don’t exist -- you lose all sense of hope. You have to be hopeful.
BILL MOYERS: And you were when you approached those steps that morning to make your speech?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: When I arrived there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I was very hopeful. I was very optimistic. I was ready. I was ready. And when A. Philip Randolph stood up and said, "I now present to you young John Lewis, the National Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee," I had what I considered an executive session with myself.
BILL MOYERS: An executive session with yourself?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Yeah. I said, "This is it. I must go for it." So, I looked to my right. I saw all of these young people from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Then I looked to my left. I saw many young people, black and white, up in the trees trying to get a better view of the platform. Then I looked straight ahead. And I just started, starting speaking.
JOHN LEWIS IN 1963: We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. For they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all. While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi who are out in the fields working for less than three dollars a day, twelve hours a day. We come here today with a great sense of misgiving.
It is true that we support the administration's civil rights bill. We support it with great reservations, however. Unless -- unless Title III is put in this bill, there is nothing to protect the young children and old women who must face police dogs and fire hoses in the South while they engage in peaceful demonstrations.
BILL MOYERS: But you know, you made your brothers in the march very nervous as they started hearing about what you were going to say. In fact, correct me if I'm wrong on this. But the night before your speech, one of your associates mistakenly put a copy of several copies of it on a table in the press room. And word began to-- the copies began to circulate and the alarms went up. What can you remember of that?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, I remember very well a note was put under my door from Bayard Rustin saying, "You need to come to a meeting. There's some concern about your speech, what you are proposing to say. And I attended the meeting. There were representatives from the different heads of the organization.
And some other people were there. And we had a very tense discussion about what I was saying and not saying. Near the end of the speech, more than anything else people were concerned about the end. But throughout, they sort of analyzed and said words and phrases. And I remember one line, I said, "You tell us to wait. You tell us to be patient. We cannot wait. We cannot be patient. We want our freedom and we want it now."
And Bayard Rustin said to me -- he was joking, just joking. He said, "John, you can't say you cannot be patient." Said the Catholic Church believed in being patient. He was just kidding me. But then, there was some people who said something like, "In the speech, you're saying revolution, black masses. What are you talking about?"
And A. Philip Randolph came to my rescue. He said, "There's nothing wrong with the use of the word black masses. I use it in myself sometimes. There's nothing wrong with the use of the word revolution. I use it in myself --" so, for the most part, we kept that in it.
But near the end of the speech, the original text, I said, "If we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day may come where we may not confine our marching on Washington, but we may be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did nonviolently." They said, "Oh, no. You can't go there." And that stayed in the speech until we got to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
And both A. Philip Randolph and Dr. King and Mr. Wilkins came to me. And at one point, I said to Roy Wilkins, I said "Mr. Wilkins this speech represent the young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and all of the people, indigenous people in Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi and all across the South." And he sort of walked away, sort of backed off.
Then, Mr. Randolph and Dr. King came back and said, Dr. King said, "John, this doesn't sound like you." And Mr. Randolph said something like, "We come this far together, John. Let's stay together." And I couldn't say no to A. Philip Randolph. I couldn't say no to Martin Luther King, Jr.
BILL MOYERS: So you agreed to some changes. You took out the words criticizing the President's bill as being too little, and too late. You took out the call to march through the Heart of Dixie the way Sherman did. You took out the question asking which side is the federal government on. You took out the reference to some political leaders as “cheap,” and you took them out, you're saying, because you were on the team, and because you honored A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King who said, "John, some of those words don't sound like you?"
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I did it. And as I look back and think about it 50 years later, I think it was the right thing to do. I have always tried to be a team player, and try not to violate any principles, or violate my philosophy.
BILL MOYERS: But were you angry at yourself at the time?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I don't think I was angry. I think I had a sense of righteous indignation.
JOHN LEWIS IN 1963: Let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. But by and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their career on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. […] Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham? Where is the political party that will protect the citizens of Albany, Georgia?
BILL MOYERS: So what did you mean when you said, "Let us not forget that we are now involved in a social revolution"?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: What I was trying to suggest -- this is not child play. This is not something today and it's gone tomorrow. That we need a revolution of values. We need a revolution of ideas. We need to humanize. I didn't make it plain. I didn't make it clear. But find a way to humanize our politics, to humanize our political institutions, our business, our education institution and look out for the people.
Neither of the two major political party was being responsive to the needs, not just of African Americans but there was a lot of Americans had been left out and left behind. They were low-income whites, there were Latinos, Native-Americans, women, children.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: The March on Washington, August 28, 1963, was all-inclusive. It was not a black march. We wanted everyone to participate. We wanted to really, as I said before, to move toward the creation of an America at peace with itself, the beloved community, where no one but no one would be left out or left behind. And it didn't matter your race or your color.
BILL MOYERS: Your words got through. Your message took some hope, some shape when the Democrats with liberal Republicans started pushing the Civil Rights Act of '64 and the Voting Rights Act of '65.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I think after the March on Washington and with President Johnson as president, represented some of the best days of modern America. The Civil Rights Act was passed, bipartisan effort. It was one of the fine hours for the Congress. As some would say, "We got things done. We accomplished something."
BILL MOYERS: I want to play a part of your speech that also got directly, subsequently, into the important legislation that came out in '64 and '65.
JOHN LEWIS IN 1963: We must have legislation that will protect the Mississippi sharecroppers, who have been forced to leave their homes because they dared to exercise their right to register to vote. We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns five dollars a week in the home of a family whose total income is 100,000 dollars a year. We must have a good FEPC bill.
BILL MOYERS: You call for the FEPC, the Fair Employment Practices Commission. It prevents private firms, government agencies and labor unions from discriminating against workers on the basis of race, religion or color. That wound up in the Civil Rights Act of '64.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, you know, sometime you have to not just dream about what could be, you get out and push and you pull and you preach. And you create a climate and environment to get those in high places, to get men and women of good will in power to act. And people responded. President Johnson listened. And members of Congress listened. And they responded. Today's a different day.
JOHN LEWIS IN 1963: If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.
By the forces of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say, "Wake up America! Wake up!" for we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.
BILL MOYERS: But the real work was ahead, wasn't it?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: But I knew, as Dr. King said in his speech, we had to go back to the South. We had to go, we had to leave the mountaintop. And being in Washington, being on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was a great feeling. To be standing there in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln. But we have to go back into the heart of Alabama, back to Georgia, back to Mississippi and back to other parts of America and to make real the hopes and dreams of a people.
BILL MOYERS: But when you did that in the preceding years, you got your head bashed in.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, that was part of the price we had to pay in order to make it real, make it plain, make it simple. Daddy King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s father used to say to him over and over again, "Make it plain, son. Make it plain." By marching to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we were trying to make it plain. Not just to politicians, but to the American people.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I said to some of my staff, I said it to the people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I said it to Dr. King and the people at SCLC from time to time. We have to pace ourselves because our struggle is not a struggle that lasts for one day, or one week, or one month, or one year, or one lifetime. It's an ongoing struggle.
I said it to some of my colleagues in the Congress. We must take the long hard look, but also believe in a sense of urgency. When people are hurting, when people are suffering, you must be ready to move. You must be ready to act.
And how long can people suffer? How long can people starve? And if we make a decision between children and military might? Or make a decision between more bombs, more missiles, more guns, and mothers and children, the poor, the elderly? You cannot be patient. You cannot wait.
BILL MOYERS: Do you remember what Martin Luther King said to you after the speech?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I remember Dr. King saying, "Good job, John, good job."
BILL MOYERS: And then he went on to follow you shortly with that famous "I Have a Dream" speech. How did it strike you hearing it that day?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: When Martin Luther King Jr. stood up and started speaking, and later as he continued to speak, and he got to that point where he said, "I have a dream today, a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream," I looked at him, I’ve heard him speak so many times, and I knew then that he knew that he was getting over to the American people, and that he was preaching a great sermon. And that's what he did.
He, in a good sense, he took advantage of the situation. He had the largest audience he ever had. He had been to Washington before, like in 1957, on May 17, 1957 and spoke on the steps. But this audience was different. It was larger. And I think he was inspired. I think he was inspired by God almighty. I think he had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history. And he responded.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. IN 1963: I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.
BILL MOYERS: It was certainly apparent to those thousands upon thousands of people that he had somehow captured the immensity of the movement, and that he had delivered.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: You couldn't leave after hearing him speak and go back to business as usual. You had to do something, you had to act. You had to move. You had to go out and spread the good news.
BILL MOYERS: Some critics said after the "I Have a Dream" speech that it was candy-coated, and appeasement to white America. Too much optimism, too much love. Do you remember that? The criticisms of his speech?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: The criticism was uncalled for. Dr. King measured the moment. He measured the climate, the environment.
He was trying through his message to bring us all together as one people, as one family, as one house, the American house, the world house. And there was room. There was a place for all Americans. It was not just black Americans. White Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, women, men, everybody.
BILL MOYERS: But we have largely forgotten that in the beginning, his words were stinging as they spoke about reality.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check […] It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation America has given the Negro people a bad check. A check which has come backed marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. BILL MOYERS: John Lewis, why has that part of his speech not joined the collective memory of the country?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I don't know. I really don't know. And it's so troublesome. I think that's one of the most brilliant and most powerful parts of that speech, really. I think sometimes we get caught up in the rhetoric. There's not anything wrong with rhetoric or poetry but that's the essence. That is the body. That is the soul of that speech, really.
This man’s life is not just civil rights or civil liberty, but he was concerned about hunger, poverty. And he died in Memphis trying to deal with the whole question of the wages. Economic conditions.
The last time I saw him was a meeting in Atlanta. He was preparing for the Poor People's Campaign. He had brought together low-income African American, low-income whites, Latinos, and Asian and Native Americans together to talk about going to Washington to do something about poverty.
BILL MOYERS: This was the spring of 1968, not long before he was killed.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Still, he was harkening back to that universal vision of egalitarian America that you all presented that day here in 1963.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: That's what the march was all about. We said “jobs,” what jobs means, improving your conditions. Jobs, maybe you can do something about sending your child to school to get a great education. Maybe you could-- they would get healthcare. Food and shelter is the basic necessity of life. That's what it was all about.
BILL MOYERS: Many people don't remember that after Dr. King finished his historic speech, one of the chief architects of the march, Bayard Rustin who, of course, you knew so well took to the podium and made a series of demands.
BAYARD RUSTIN IN 1963: We first demand we have effective civil rights legislation, no compromise, no filibuster, and that it includes public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education, FEPC, and the right to vote. What do you say? […] We demand that segregation be ended in every school district in the year 1963.
BILL MOYERS: You write in your memoir that that day was the peak of hope and that we were soon descending back into the darkness.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I think I was right. I wouldn't say I was prophetic. But 18 days after we left Washington that sense of hope, a great deal of that hope was lost, dismissed, or set aside. It was the terrible bombing of this church in Birmingham where four little girls were killed on a Sunday morning. That was a sad and dark hour for the nation, but for the movement in particular.
It was unreal. It was unbelievable. I was at home on that Sunday morning in rural Alabama outside of Troy visiting my mother and father, my younger brothers and sisters, when we heard that the bombing had taken place. I went to Birmingham, met my friend Julian Bond, who had made it over from Atlanta. And we stood on the corner a short distance from the church. And it just was too sad. And I stayed there for the funeral of the four little girls. And Dr. King came during the week and delivered the eulogy for the three little young girls. And that made us more determined than ever before to go all out and to continue to struggle.
BILL MOYERS: I remember in his funeral message, Martin Luther King was still preaching nonviolence despite this growing chorus of criticism from more militant blacks. He said, "You can bomb our homes, bomb our churches, kill our little children, and we are still going to love you." And then he made this astonishing statement: "At times life is hard, as hard as crucible steel. In spite of the darkness of this hour we must not lose faith in our white brothers." Did you agree with that?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I agreed with every word that Dr. King spoke. I believed in it. And I still believe in it today. You cannot lose hope. You cannot give up. You just cannot give in. You cannot become bitter or hostile. You just -- the way of love is a better way. It's -- Dr. King has said on one occasion over the years during that period that we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish as fools. I think that is still true today. That was the essence of the movement.
BILL MOYERS: Those little girls were in Sunday school hearing the lesson on “the love that forgives.” And they died hearing that lesson. And you're saying those men who did it should be loved and forgiven?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Yes, they must be love. They must -- we must have the capacity, we must have the ability to forgive. Dr. King -- one joke he said, "We just have to love." He said, "We have to love the hell out of everybody. Just love. It's a better way." On one occasion he said something like, "I made up my mind to love because hate is too heavy a burden to bear."
BILL MOYERS: So what does the March on Washington 50 years ago have to say to us today?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: The March on Washington 50 years ago is saying to us today that we can. We can as a nation and as a people come together for the common good and believe again that we can get things done for all America and not just for some.
BILL MOYERS: John Lewis, thank you very much for your time. And thank you, above all, for your work and your witness.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, thank you very much, Bill. Thank you, brother.
BILL MOYERS: You may find it hard to believe that the same John Lewis who speaks so gently today of “love and forgiveness” was described 50 years ago by "The New York Times" as “harshest of all the speakers” at the March on Washington. But the times were harsh, as those in the civil rights movement knew better than anyone. They would have been justified meeting the evils of racism with radical measures. How they achieved such a magnanimous spirit in the face of the ugly oppression of white supremacy, gross injustice, and reactionary politics is a story that both baffles and inspires.
I watched the people around me that day in 1963: students, trade unionists, teachers, laborers, letter carriers, even sharecroppers who rode the bus all night to come up from the blood-darkened depths of the South. The thing I remember most vividly is how seriously they listened. They heard what John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the others were saying – that America had failed its great promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens.
Like their forebears they were used to seeing the future of which they dreamed always deferred, put off again and again. Now, they came that hot Wednesday in August to make demands and celebrate their solidarity. They sought freedom – the same freedom from want and fear that white people want – and they wanted jobs, a living wage, without which freedom is but the rich man’s preserve.
We remember Dr. King’s soaring dream of an interracial future, but we too often forget that the bush must burn before hope is born, that there is a trial of pain before change can come. The March reached the peak of the mountain that day, but the marchers were soon back below on the flatlands where the long, long struggle for justice continued to meet ferocious resistance.
We keep backsliding on the promise; keep forgetting that the marchers were claiming it for every American, of every color and faith. But for a few hours that day, we could imagine what this country might yet become…
SINGING CROWD: Freedom. Freedom. Freedom, freedom, freedom.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, we invite you to share your own memories and photos of the 1963 March on Washington. And we’ve brought together a group of activists and scholars to think about its impact and ask whether after all these years the demands of those who marched have been met.