The speaker best remembered from the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. King, however, was not the only speaker on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day; another was John Lewis.
At the time Lewis was a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He now is a U.S. congressman, representing Georgia’s 5th District, a portion of which is in DeKalb County.
When the U.S. Congress held its commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington July 31, Lewis was the keynote speaker. Looking back on that day, he said, “I see it as one of this nation’s finest hours. The American people pushed and pulled, they struggled, suffered, and some even died, to demonstrate their desire to see a fairer, more just society.”
He recalled, “In 1963, millions of American citizens could not register to vote simply because of the color of their skin. Lawyers, doctors, college professors, high school principals, maids, butlers, sharecroppers and tenant farmers stood in unmovable lines all across the South just trying to register to vote.
“Intimidation and fear surrounded the democratic process. People were afraid of losing their jobs, being run off their land, being beaten or even killed for trying to register to vote. How did a society, committed to liberty and justice, allow the idea to take hold that the differences between us have some bearing on the value of human life?
“Those of us in the movement made a decision that we had to do what we could, give our very lives if necessary, to demonstrate that those kinds of ideas are not true. The morning of the march we met with Democratic and Republican leaders right here on Capitol Hill on the House and Senate side,” Lewis said.
“The plan was that we would leave the Senate, walk down Constitution Avenue and lead people to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But when we stepped out into the streets, we saw hundreds and thousands of people pouring out of Union Station,” he continued. “They were Black and White, Latino, Asian and Native American. There were members of every faith, speakers of many different languages. American citizens, especially those living in Europe, came from abroad to participate. Celebrities were there, but mostly there were countless and nameless thousands of ordinary people with extraordinary vision who came.
“They wanted to bear witness to the truth that we are one people, one family, the human family. We are one people, one house, the American house. We were supposed to be leading them, but they were already marching. At that moment, the people were leading us and they literally pushed us down Constitution Avenue up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.”
Before the march, many had feared that it would turn violent, but Lewis describes participants in the march as behaving “like they were on their way to a religious service, like they were going to a camp meeting.”
“As Mahalia Jackson sang ‘How We Got Over,’ she drew thousands of us together, and in a strange sense it seemed like the whole place started rocking,” he said. “Somehow and some way, the philosophy of peace, love and nonviolence had been instilled in the very being of all the participants.
“We truly believed that in every human being—even those who were violent toward us—there was a spark of the divine, and no person had the right to scar or destroy that spark. We had a right to protest for what was right, Dr. King would say.
“We had a right to demand that this nation respect the dignity and the worth of every human being. People were moved and inspired by that vision of justice and equality, and they were willing to put their very lives on the line for a cause greater than themselves.”
President John Kennedy, according to many historians, was among those who had been concerned about the direction the march would take. Lewis remembers that after the march Kennedy invited the platform guests to the White House and “he was standing in the door of the Oval Office beaming. He looked like a proud father. He shook each of our hands and said, ‘You did a good job.’”