March on Washington: Before MLK’s cadence, there was John Lewis’ flame

A Q&A with Congressman John Lewis about his speech on the day MLK declared ‘I Have a Dream’

This article was originally published in 2003 on the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington.

In 15 minutes on a balmy afternoon 40 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sealed his place in history, capping the March on Washington with his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech.

But before King even took the stage, and unbeknownst to the 250,000 people gathered on the Mall that afternoon, there was drama regarding another speech. A 23-year-old John Lewis was arguing heatedly with other members of the so-called "Big Six," the primary organizers of the march, who said Lewis' planned speech was too inflammatory. Even King seemed to think Lewis was going too far.

Speaking as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis planned to say that pending civil rights legislation was weak, and he criticized President Kennedy by name. In perhaps the most controversial passage, he said that if the march did not accomplish its goals, people would march through the South like Gen. William Sherman, "pursuing our own scorched-earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground --- nonviolently."

In the end, Lewis agreed to change his speech. Now, 40 years later, U.S. Rep. John Lewis is at the center of the celebration of the march's anniversary. On Saturday he was to deliver another speech on the exact spot from which he spoke 40 years ago, and on Thursday he will keynote Atlanta's commemoration of the day.

"Even today, when I fly into Washington, I look down and I see the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and I can see where the hundreds of thousands of people stood," Lewis said last week in a telephone interview. "I could never, ever forget being there. It was one of the most remarkable events of my life."

In 2003, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., holds one of the many photos from the March on Washington that decorated his Capitol Hill office.

Credit: Rick McKay/Cox Washington Bureau

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Credit: Rick McKay/Cox Washington Bureau

During that interview, conducted Thursday afternoon, Lewis looked back on the march and the speech that kept changing almost to the moment he delivered it. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: When did you start crafting the speech and what did it say?

A: About a week before the march, and I started writing the speech in Atlanta, on Raymond Street, right off of West Hunter, which is now Martin Luther King Drive, right near Paschal's. The March on Washington was a march for jobs and freedom. It was not for a particular civil rights bill. It was for civil rights in general. In the original text, I said that, in good conscience, we cannot support the administration's civil rights bill. It was too little and too late.

President Kennedy's proposed legislation didn't have anything to protect old women and young children involved in peaceful protests, run down by police on horseback and chased by police dogs. And then I went on and said, "You tell us to wait, you tell us to be patient. We don't want our freedom gradually. We want our freedom and we want it now.

"We are in a serious revolution.

"The black masses are restless."

Then I said, "Listen, Mr. Kennedy, you are trying to take the revolution out of the streets and into the courts."

Julian Bond, who was our press secretary, was supposed to make copies of the speech available the night before. Someone saw an advance copy of my speech, someone in the Kennedy administration, and they became very concerned.

Q: You said at the time, "My words needed to be forceful --- I knew that. I didn't want to be part of a parade." What did you mean by that?

A: I felt at the time, and I still feel this way today, that the speech had to be forceful and aggressive. We had to display a sense that there was growing frustration and discontent with the slow pace of change. There was a sense of urgency.

Q: Did you have any idea that anyone would object to the speech?

A: Not at all. As chair of SNCC, since June 14, 1963, I had been active. Gone on the Freedom Rides in '61. I was used to speaking at mass meetings and rallies. And standing up and telling people we got to find a way to dramatize the issue. I saw my role as one of the speakers to push, and to push as far as possible.

A 23-year-old John Lewis (second from the right), then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington.  Others shown are from left: Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; (seated with glasses) Cleveland Robinson, chairman of the Demonstration Committee; (beside Robinson is) A. Philip Randolph, organizer of the demonstration and veteran labor leader who helped to found the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, American Federation of Labor (AFL), and a former vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO); (standing behind the two chairs) Rabbi Joachim Prinz; (wearing a bow tie and standing beside Prinz) is Joseph Rauh Jr., a Washington, D.C., attorney and civil rights, peace and union activist; and Floyd McKissick, national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality.

Credit: National Archives

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Credit: National Archives

Q: Bayard Rustin was one of the principal organizers of the event. What was he like?

A: He was one of the most extraordinary human beings I ever met. He was so smart, so brilliant. Mr. [A. Philip] Randolph was the chair, but Bayard was the organizer; he was the brain that put it all together.

Q: So when you got a note from him the night before the march, did you know there was trouble?

A: I knew something was wrong. It said, "John, come to a meeting. Some people have a problem with your speech." The SNCC people were very upset with the idea of me changing the speech.

Q: The first sign of trouble was when Washington Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle, who was supposed to deliver the invocation, threatened to back out if you didn't change your speech.

A: Many people believe that people in the Kennedy administration, particularly Bobby Kennedy, made contact with the archbishop and suggested that he not give the invocation if John Lewis didn't change his speech.

Q: What did you actually change that night?

A: More than anything, where I had said that we cannot in good conscience support the civil rights bill. We changed it to say we supported it with reservations. And a few other phrases and words.

Q: Then what happened?

A: I went to bed. I thought we had a wonderful discussion. I thought for the most part that everything had been cleared up until we got to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and they said there was still a problem. Someone objected to the words "revolution" and "masses." A. Philip came to my rescue. In his baritone voice: "There is nothing wrong with the word 'masses.' There is nothing wrong with the word 'revolution.' I use them myself sometimes."

Q: Others thought those words might convey communism?

A: They said they were Socialist and it was too radical. And near the end of the speech, I said something like, "If we do not see meaningful progress after we march, the day may come where we may not confine our marching on Washington. We may be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did --- [but] nonviolently." That was the killer. People wanted me to change that. Dr. King said, "John that doesn't sound like you."

Q: So you are at the march, Mahalia Jackson and Bob Dylan are singing, the speeches have begun and you are in the back frantically meeting with Roy Wilkins, King, Randolph, Rustin and the Rev. Eugene Carson Blake of the National Council of Churches about your speech again. How tense did it get?

A: It was pretty heated. At one point I said to Mr. Wilkins, who had sort of intervened, that it was my speech and I am speaking for a segment of the movement, especially the young people and local people that we had been working with.

From a 1965 press conference, Martin Luther King Jr. (seated second from right) announced the first stage of a three-stage economic boycott of Alabama. King is flanked by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy on his right and John Lewis on his right. Andrew Young, a King aide, is standing behind Lewis. Photo taken on 4/2/65.  (PHOTO CREDIT AP)

Credit: ap

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Credit: ap

Q: Was age an issue?

A: No question. I was young --- 23. It was not just age, but also our philosophy. I came out of a part of the movement that believed in nonviolent direct action. Who believed literally in putting your body on the line. There is no question about that. We were impatient about the pace of change. We had seen people beaten, arrested, jailed, killed. We felt we should be much more aggressive and have a degree of nonviolent militancy.

Q: Wilkins said he didn't understand why SNCC people were always trying to be different. What was Mr. Randolph saying at the time?

A: Mr. Randolph was the person who tried to be the mediator. He was trying to keep everybody together.

Q: So when Randolph came up to you, after having first dreamed of this march in 1941, almost to the point of tears, and said not to ruin this moment that he had waited all his life for, what did you do?

A: I deferred to Mr. Randolph. He was such a wonderful human being. He was such a moral character that you couldn't say no to him. If A. Philip Randolph had been born in another country, on another continent, and another color, he would have probably been president, king or prime minister. He was that type of human being.

In 2018, U.S. Rep John Lewis speaks during a rally for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Forbes Arena at Morehouse College. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Q: Would you have changed it if it had not been for Mr. Randolph's last-second plea? Would they have let you speak?

A: It would have been difficult not to let me speak. That would have made things worse because word would have gotten out. SNCC had been part of the effort to issue the call and then not to speak would have been bad. I don't think there was any possibility of denying me to speak.

Q: Were you pleased with the revised text?

A: I was at home with it. Rather than saying we marched through the South the way Sherman did . . . I said said if we do not see meaningful progress here today, we will be forced to march through some cities. And I named some cities like Birmingham and Philadelphia and Harlem.

Q: Were you angry when you went to the podium?

A: A. Philip Randolph came to the podium and said, "I now present to you, young John Lewis, the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee." I had put it behind me. Some people thought I was going to come to the podium angry, but I think I came there somewhat relaxed. I didn't like the idea that I was encouraged to change it, but I was willing to do it.

Q: The first words out of your mouth, your voice cracked. Did you consider yourself a good public speaker? Were you ready for this audience?

A: I was ready. I had been inspired by the moment and the speakers who had gone on before me. It was such a great setting. For a brief moment when I stood, I had what I called an executive session with myself and I said, "This is it. I got to go for it," and that is what I tried to do. Last month, I saw the video of the entire speech for the first time. My voice and tone and mannerisms have changed over the years. That is experience. I don't have the same high-pitched voice.

Q: Bayard was standing right behind you. Was he ready to yank you off?

A: I don't think so. Bayard Rustin wanted things to go well. The president and the attorney general and others in the administration were so concerned that there would be violence and chaos, they wanted people in and out of Washington by sundown and they had troops outside of Washington, just in case there was an outbreak of violence. The march was one of the most peaceful and orderly events of all time.

Q: Immediately after the speech, did you feel that you had personally compromised yourself?

A: No. I just felt that, as A. Philip Randolph stated, we been together this long, let's stay together.

Q: Malcolm X, who you bumped into before the march, had criticized your speech later.

A: Malcolm said [Kennedy] told us when to come, when to leave and what to say. That was in reference to my speech being changed.

Q: How did SNCC feel about the change?

A: They were upset about it. But they supported me. The SNCC people came back South and we intensified our work.

Q: Have you thought about what kind of reaction you would have gotten had you delivered the original speech?

A: Because of what I said in the revised version, I got an image of being a militant radical. But when I look back on it, even if I had delivered the original version, I don't think it was radical or extreme in today's language or world. But some people saw it that way.

When I look back on it, even the reference to Sherman and revolution, it is so mild. It was really saying, let’s make real what we have on paper.

Q: I've noticed that you have been able to quote both speeches pretty well after 40 years.

A: I don't go back and read them, but I remember like it was yesterday.

Q: How has that experience shaped or changed you?

A: The March on Washington and the speech strengthened me. Given me greater resolve to continue to push and pull to create a truly interracial democracy in America and a beloved community. One part of the speech that people tend to overlook, I said something like: “We must struggle for more than mere civil rights. We must struggle to create a community at peace with itself.” And I still talk about that today. The march, it was more than about jobs and freedom for black people. It was for all people.