Lewis, Moyers recall March on Washington 50 years later


“Moyers & Company” with John Lewis, 1 p.m. Sunday, GPB

As deputy director of the Peace Corp., 29-year-old Bill Moyers was cajoled by an associate into checking out the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington.

As he approached the Lincoln Memorial, Moyers could hear “this young vibrant voice, someone I had never heard of: John Lewis.”

A half century later, Moyers — now host of his own weekly interview program on PBS, “Moyers & Company” — sat down last month with Lewis, a civil rights legend and Atlanta congressman, in his D.C. office for several hours to talk about Lewis’ life and the meaning of that historic day.

Lewis is the last living speaker from the event.

“We all know Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech that day,” Moyers said in an interview earlier this week. “Lewis’ was largely forgotten. But it was a powerful speech. I had never given much thought to how poor blacks lived. It was an awakening to me.”

In the hourlong special, Lewis and Moyers walk to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, meeting students on field trips.

“It was amazing to me,” Moyers said, “to see young people cling to him. They clearly recognized him as someone special. He is the most eloquent living icon we have from that era, a man who was twice nearly beaten to death who still speaks of love and forgiveness.”

In 1963, Lewis was the newly named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the tender age of 23. He was already respected enough in the civil rights movement to garner a speaking slot at the March on Washington, which drew an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people.

Moyers said he felt Lewis’ speech was the most radical of them all, focusing on the economic subordination of blacks. “We remember the high moral pitch of the march,” Moyers said. “We don’t remember the tough rhetoric.”

In fact, some of Lewis’ brethren convinced him to temper parts of his speech, including a potentially incendiary reference to Gen. Wiliam Tecumseh Sherman.

“Near the end of the speech,” Lewis told Moyers, “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.’”

Moyers said he admired Lewis’ lack of fear, his steadfast adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence. “To live in fear is like you don’t exist,” Lewis said. “You lose all sense of hope. And you have to be hopeful.”

The PBS special barely touches on what’s going on today. Moyers interviewed Lewis right before the U.S. Supreme Court deemed portions of the Voting Rights Act invalid, a move Lewis has since decried as a “dagger in the heart” of the act itself.

For Moyers, that was just as well: “It would have introduced a political frame I didn’t want. I wanted people who hadn’t been there to think of that day and what it meant to us who were.”