March on Washington Turns 50: Interview with John Lewis

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, civil rights pioneer John Lewis, the only surviving speaker from the March, reflects on that historic day in 1963.
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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. famously changed the course of American history with four powerful words “I Have a Dream.” On the podium with Dr. King, John Lewis, the youngest among the leaders of the March, looked out at the masses of Americans who came to support the struggle for equality and felt that day was the “peak of hope.”

Only 23 years old, Lewis had already dedicated his young life to protecting civil rights. Growing up on his family’s farm outside of Troy, Alabama, Lewis would listen to Dr. King on the radio as a young boy and was inspired by his example of nonviolent protest, along with that of Rosa Parks and others involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He began organizing sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters as a student at Fisk University and, in 1961, he was one of the original Freedom Riders, risking his life to challenge segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis came to be considered one of the Big Six leaders of the movement, along with Dr. King who had inspired his own activism.

Now 73 years old and the only surviving speaker from the March, the longtime congressman from Georgia remembers that historic day 50 years later and looks at how far the “Dream” has come.

At just 23 years old, you were the youngest person to speak at the March on Washington. Can you describe what you were feeling that day?

I was honored to have an opportunity to speak on August 28th, 1963. I had just been elected the National Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and when A. Philip Randolph, the dean of the Big Six of the Civil Rights Movement, presented me I went straight to the podium and I looked to my right and I saw hundreds and hundreds of young people standing to the side, and then I looked to my left and I saw many young men, black and white, up in the trees trying to get a better view of the Lincoln Memorial and the podium. And then I looked straight ahead and I said, ’This is it,’ and I started speaking and I did my best.

Civil Rights activists lead the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 including John Lewis (far left) and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (middle). (Photo by Robert w. Kelley/Getty Images)

Civil Rights activists lead the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 including John Lewis (far left) and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (middle). (Photo by Robert w. Kelley/Getty Images)

Can you describe what it was like to look out from the podium at the masses of people who attended the March?

It was one of the finest hours in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. You saw a sea of humanity. We thought maybe we would have 50,000 to 70,000 people, but it was many more. Two hundred fifty thousand they say, but I think there was probably a half million people there. When you looked out you saw men and women, young people and middle aged, black, white, Asian American, Native American, people from all over the country who wanted to be there as witnesses. Even when the March was over, people were still trying to get into Washington to participate in the March.

Where were you when Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech?

I was sitting on the podium, listening and watching him. I had heard him speak so many times before that, but on that day he turned the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a modern-day pulpit and he preached a sermon. Even today when I walk up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where we stood 50 years ago, or if I fly over coming into Washington and look down and see the Lincoln Memorial, or if I stand on Capitol Hill and look that way, I can never forget what happened that day.

And what was the most important message of your speech?

My message was one of urgency, saying to members of Congress and President Kennedy, in effect, that we couldn’t wait. One line in my speech was: ‘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.’ There was a growing sense of discontent all across America, but especially in the American South. People had been beaten, had been arrested, had been jailed for just trying to exercise their constitutional rights, their right to peacefully protest, their freedom of assembly. Places, homes and churches had been bombed. People had been denied the right to register to vote simply because of the color of their skin. Police officials in places like Montgomery and Birmingham had participated in the violence or stood aside. Bull Connor, the police commissioner in Birmingham, had used dogs and fire hoses on young children and women. Medgar Evers had been assassinated in Mississippi. And many of us, as Dr. King had said so well, were fresh from the jails and fresh from being beaten and we wanted change. We were demanding of the Congress and the President that they act.

You conveyed that sense of urgency in your speech, but you were asked to make some changes. What were you asked to change?

In the speech I used the word ‘revolution’ and the phrase ‘black masses.’ Some people had some concern about the use of these words, but my message was that we were involved in a nonviolent revolution and that the masses were restless. I also suggested in the speech that if meaningful changes did not happen that day, then the day might come where we may be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did, nonviolently, and some people said it was very inflammatory and I should delete it. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph came to me and suggested it didn’t sound like me and they said for unity and staying together could I make changes. I couldn’t say no to Dr. King or A. Philip Randolph.

Did you know then that day would change history?

At that time I thought it would have an impact, but I didn’t have any idea that the impact would be so great. I remember when the March was over and Dr. King was finished speaking, President Kennedy invited us down to the White House and he stood in the door of the Oval Office greeting each one of us. He was so proud. He was just beaming that everything had gone so well. He said, ’You did a good job.’ as he shook each of our hands and when he got to Dr. King he said, ’And you had a dream.’

But President Kennedy was concerned before the March?

President Kennedy was very concerned. We met with him in late June and mentioned the idea of a March on Washington. A. Philip Randolph spoke up in his baritone voice and said: ‘Mr. President, the black masses are restless and we are going to march on Washington.’ And President Kennedy started moving and twisting in his chair and you knew he didn’t like the idea. And he said: ‘Mr. Randolph, if you bring all of these people to Washington, won’t there be violence and chaos and disorder and we’ll never get a Civil Rights bill through the Congress?’ And Mr. Randolph responded: ‘Mr. President, it will be an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protest.’ So President Kennedy and the people in his administration tried to discourage us from having a March on Washington. He thought there would be violence and they were very concerned. They had hundreds of thousands of troops on that side of the city. They were ready to cut off the speaker system if there was any disruption. But there was not one incident of violence. It was so orderly and peaceful.

John Lewis stands to the left of Martin Luther King Jr. as President Kennedy meets with leaders of the March on Washington at the White House on August 28, 1963. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

John Lewis stands to the left of Martin Luther King Jr. as President Kennedy meets with leaders of the March on Washington at the White House on August 28, 1963. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

How did people maintain the philosophy of nonviolence under such volatile circumstances?

People accepted the idea and the way of peace, the way of nonviolence. People who came from outside of the South and other parts of the country knew that the movement had been based on peaceful resistance, the way of Gandhi and what Martin Luther King Jr. and the students had followed all across the American South. No one wanted to do anything to provoke an incident or cause an act of violence.

You are the only surviving speaker of the 10 people who spoke that day. What would Dr. King and the other leaders think about civil rights in America today?

Dr. King and the others would be gratified by the changes that have occurred, the progress we’ve made and the distance we’ve come. I think Dr. King would be pleased to see the number of elected officials of color – African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and progressive whites. However, I think Dr. King more than anyone else would be very unhappy about the amount of violence that still occurs in America today and around the world.

What do we need to accomplish regarding civil rights?

We just need to look at the number of people who have been left behind or left out to see what needs to be done. Fifty years later, we need to still talk about the need for jobs. The March on Washington was a March for Jobs and Freedom. There are still too many people who are unemployed or underemployed in America – they’re black, white, Latino, Native American and Asian American. We need comprehensive immigration reform. Dr. King wouldn’t be pleased at all to know that there are millions of people living in the shadow, living in fear in places like Georgia and Alabama. He would say that’s not right. That it’s inhuman. It’s unfair. It’s unjust.

How can we keep the "dream" alive?

We can all do something. We can all play a role. It’s important for people to come to Washington to march. As Dr. King said, there is not anything more powerful than marching feet and determined people. We have to register and at election time we all have to vote. The vote is powerful. It is almost sacred. We also have to be a little more human. We have to treat our fellow humans the way we’re designed to be treated, to be kind, to be loving and not put anyone down because of their race, their color or their nationality.