As a trio of presidents looked on, Atlanta Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis gave vivid reminders of the civil rights battles he survived and just how far the country has come in the 50 years since the original March on Washington.
When Lewis first came to Washington to participate in the 1961 Freedom Rides, blacks and whites could not sit together on buses in the South. Lewis told thousands gathered on the National Mall, in his usual booming tones, of being attacked by police dogs and repeatedly tossed in jail for the simple act of asking for the right to vote.
When Lewis – then the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – helped organize the original March on Washington, the District braced for violence but the 200,000 marchers were anything but.
“The march was so orderly, so peaceful, so filled with dignity and self-respect because we believe in the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence,” Lewis said. “People came that day to the march dressed like they were on their way to a religious service.”
Lewis spoke of Martin Luther King Jr. turning the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a pulpit for the “I Have a Dream” speech.
While things have improved since then, Lewis said, there are still important battles today. Among those he said are retooling the Voting Rights Act, New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” law, gay rights, immigration reform, disproportionate incarceration of blacks.
“Too many of us still believe our differences define us, instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation,” Lewis said.
Former President Jimmy Carter followed Lewis, heaping praise on their fellow Georgian King, whom Carter called one of the great leaders in American history – Founding Fathers included.
The King family also was a political asset, Carter revealed.
“I was really grateful when the King family adopted me as their presidential candidate in 1976,” Carter said. “Every handshake from Daddy King, every hug from Coretta got me a million Yankee votes.”
Carter, who has spent his post-presidency working toward world peace, said many of King’s speeches and sayings challenge us even today.
Perhaps the best, Carter said, was this: “The crucial question of our time is how to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.”