On this day in 1963, thousands of people converged on Washington D.C. to march for jobs and freedom. It was a special moment in the struggle for civil rights, one that ended with Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic 'I Have a Dream' speech. But also on that podium was John Lewis, the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. At age 23, he was the youngest to speak that day. "Those who have said 'be patient and wait,' we must say that we cannot be patient," he told the crowd. "We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now."
Today, Lewis is a Democratic congressman from Georgia. He welcomed host Michel Martin into his Washington D.C. office for an interview.
On meeting President Kennedy after the March
"On that day, when the march was all over, and Dr. King had delivered his speech — his "I Have a Dream Speech" — President Kennedy invited all of us back down to the White House, and he was like a beaming proud father. He was just beaming. And he said, 'You did a good job, you did a good job,' as he shook each one of our hands — 'you did a good job.' And when he got to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he said, 'And you had a dream.'
On why he had to revise his speech
"When you look back at the original text, it's pretty strong. I said, in the original text, in good conscience, we cannot support the administration's proposed Civil Rights bill. It's too little, too late. There was not anything in this bill that would protect old women and young children involved in peaceful non-violent protest."
On what people will get out of this anniversary
"It is my hope that when all these events are concluded, that another generation of people — young and not so young — say, 'Now it's my time. It is my opportunity to do something, to make a contribution, so we will never see anything like this ever again in America or in any part of our world.' "
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. On this day in 1963, hundreds of thousands of people converged on Washington, D.C. to march for jobs and freedom. It was a pivotal moment in the long battle for social justice, a moment most often remembered by Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
MARTIN: But also on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day was John Lewis, the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Just 23 years old, he was the youngest person asked to give a major address that day. This is what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: Those who have said be patient and wait, we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now.
MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about that special day, so we visited the congressman in his office here in Washington, D.C. It is packed with photos and memorabilia from the civil rights movement. Every single piece tells a story. There were two in particular - one of him at the speech in 1963, and another in the Oval Office after the events had concluded that I wanted to talk to him about. And I asked him to tell me what was going through his head in those photos.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
LEWIS: I had been introduced by A. Philip Randolph. He was the chair of the march, and he said, I now present to you young John Lewis, the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And I went straight to the podium.
MARTIN: In fact, the picture that we're seeing is you got your credentials as a platform guest. You were the youngest person to speak that day, and forgive me if I don't mind mentioning that you looked every bit of your 23 years. Did you feel - I just have to ask, you know, what was going through your mind?
I mean, you were at an age when a lot of people are just graduating from college or just, you know, sweating their first internship, and here you are looking at, you know, hundreds of thousands of people. What was going through your mind? Do you remember?
LEWIS: I remember very well. You must keep in mind, I had gone through the sit-ins in 1960, the Freedom Rides in 1961, so I had grown up sitting on lunch counter stools, riding buses. So by the time of the March on Washington, I was ready. I was prepared. I tried to do my best. When I stood up and looked out over that sea of humanity, then I did a quick look on the right side. I saw hundreds of young people, many of them volunteers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Then I looked to my left. I saw all of these young people up in the trees. These young men trying to get a better view of the podium. Then I looked straight ahead, and I saw many people with their shoes off and their feet in the water trying to cool off.
MARTIN: The other picture in your office that I wanted to refer to is a picture that might not be as well-known, but is equally significant, given our times. It is a picture from the Oval Office, where President John F. Kennedy greeted many of the leaders of the march that day, after the march was all over. Could you talk a little bit about that?
LEWIS: Well, on that day, when the march was all over and Dr. King had delivered his speech - his "I Have a Dream" speech - President Kennedy invited us back down to the White House and he was like a beaming proud father. He was just beaming. And he said, you did a good job, you did a good job, as he shook each one of our hands. You did a good job. And when he got to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he said, and you had a dream.
MARTIN: And was that significant at the time? You obviously remember it, but do you remember it as being important at that time?
LEWIS: It was very, very important because the president didn't like the idea of a march on Washington. He didn't want us to march. He said if you march, won't there be disorder and violence and chaos? And we would never got a civil rights bill through the Congress. And A. Philip Randolph responded and said Mr. President, this has been orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protest. So the president was very, very happy, very pleased that everything had gone so well 'cause he was thinking about, not only trying to get the civil rights bill through to Congress, but he was also thinking about the next election in 1964.
MARTIN: Well, you know, I have to say your expression is interesting. You're kind of scowling a little bit, I have to say. And I remember reading the coverage and listening to a lot of the interviews around the commemoration of the march and it's been reported that there were some - how can I put it - some editing of your speech, not by outside individuals, as has been incorrectly reported, but that there were - some of the other leaders wanted to sort of tone down the militancy as it were. And I was wondering what was going through your mind in that picture at the Oval Office.
LEWIS: Well, my speech, when you look back at the original text, it's pretty strong. I said, in the original text, in good conscience we cannot support the administration's proposed civil rights bill, for it was too little and too late. There was not anything in this bill that will protect old women and young children involving peaceful nonviolent protests. And then I talked about the political party - where is our party? And I talked about the party of Kennedy. Where's the party of the Eastland? The senator from Mississippi. Where's our party?
MARTIN: Who is a staunch opponent of civil rights.
LEWIS: And a real segregationist. And I said the party of Jarvis is the party of Goldwater. Where is our party? Where's the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington? And then in the speech, 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. When I was working on the speech, I was reading a newspaper. And I saw a picture of a group of black women in southern Africa carrying signs saying, one man, one vote. So in my proposed March on Washington speech I said, one man, one vote is the African cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours.
MARTIN: So what are you thinking about in that picture and why are you scowling?
LEWIS: Well, I was just not - I guess - at home with myself at the time. And maybe I was thinking about what had happened and why did people make so much fuss and noise about certain words and phrases that I was going to use or planned to use in this speech. But near the end of the speech, I said something like, if we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day may come where we're not confined on marching on Washington, but we may be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did, nonviolently.
And I guess in that picture, it was a sense of peace and order and everybody was so happy. But in the original text, I said, we march today for jobs and freedom. But we don't have anything to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers and sisters cannot be here.
MARTIN: Speaking of that, you know, you returned to the same steps on Saturday. You talked about how back in 1963, we hadn't heard of the Internet, we didn't have a cellular telephone - iPad, but we used what we had to bring about a nonviolent revolution.
And then you called upon young people today to get out there and push and pull and make America what it should be for all of us. Are you disappointed at the level of activism that you see among young people today - the people who are today, who you were back then?
LEWIS: I just think that young people today have the capacity and the ability to do much more than what we did. They're smarter. They have unbelievable opportunities to use what they have. If we had an iPad, Facebook, cellular telephone - I don't know what we would have been able to do. We only had a old mimeograph machine. We didn't even have a fax machine, but we did what we had to do.
MARTIN: Is there anything you think they don't get, though, that you wish they would understand?
LEWIS: The young people get it, but it's hard for some young people to believe. For them to believe that one day in America, not so long ago, that people couldn't do the same things, that you had signs saying white and colored, saying, white men, colored men, white women, colored women. It's hard for young people to accept that. And on one hand, that's a good thing. And I tell young people today, I say, those signs are gone. The only places you will see those signs will be in a book, on a video, or in a museum.
MARTIN: When this week of commemoration is complete, what do you hope people will think about these events - this week and the original march?
LEWIS: It is my hope that when all of these events are concluded, that another generation of people, young and not so young, will say, now it's my time and it's my opportunity to do something, to make a contribution, to go out there so we will never see anything like this ever again in America or any part of our world.
MARTIN: And before we let you go, I wanted to ask you, you know, this has been a week in which you've been asked to recall some very painful moments. I mean, as we are speaking now, we're in your congressional office. It's a beautiful office, because of your seniority, you have a terrific view. We are surrounded by some wonderful mementos. You get a lot of respect. But we're asking you to go back in a time when you were literally beaten to the ground - left unconscious. You were set on by dogs. I mean, has this been hard for you in some way to go back to that time?
LEWIS: Well, sometimes when I'm asked to go back, it becomes painful to relive some of the events - not just what happened to me but to others. Some people that I met and got to know, they died. The only thing I did, I gave a little blood here and there. In Rock Hill, South Carolina, May 9, 1961 during the freedom ride, in Montgomery at the Greyhound bus station on May 20, 1961 and then again in Selma on that bridge on March 7, 1965. So I feel more than lucky. I feel very blessed that I'm still here. But I mourn for my friends and my colleagues and untold number of people who didn't live to see this day, especially the three civil rights workers in Mississippi that I met, and one I got to know very well. And I mourn in thinking of the little girls that were killed in Birmingham on September 15, 1963.
MARTIN: Is there ever a day when you won't mourn?
LEWIS: I don't think a day will ever come when I will not mourn. I think about Medgar Evers. I think about Martin Luther King Jr. I think about Malcolm, who I met on more than one occasion. President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy. But you have to continue to push and pull and move on.
MARTIN: Congressman John Lewis, thank you so much for speaking with us.
LEWIS: Thank you.
MARTIN: If you would like to see some pictures of Congressman Lewis's office, head to our website at NPR.org/tellmemore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.