Revisiting John Lewis’s March On Washington Speech

The great civil rights leader John Lewis died Friday night after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.1Trivia: Jeopardy host Alex Trebex was born in Canada four months after Lewis was born in Alabama. What a world. In 1963, a 23-year-old Lewis was the youngest speaker at the famed March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. It is worth revisiting in its entirety, given its relevance even though nearly 60 years have passed since Lewis delivered it.2Some explanations and observations in the footnotes. But you can bypass them entirely and simply read the speech itself.

We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here.3Here, Lewis today could just as easily be describing the hundreds of thousands Africam-Americans victimized by America’s punitive “justice” sysyem. For they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all.4African-Americans remain behind the economic eight-ball by any reasonable measurement. While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi who are out in the fields working for less than three dollars a day, twelve hours a day. While we stand here there are students in jail on trumped-up charges. Our brother James Farmer, along with many others, is also in jail. We come here today with a great sense of misgiving.

It is true that we support the administration’s civil rights bill.5Mitch McConnell is currently sitting on a voting rights bill, which should surprise no one. But Mitch McConnell sure respected John Lewis–at least enough to be seen with Lewis when McConnell had a tough re-election bid in 2008. We support it with great reservations, however. Unless Title III is put in this bill, there is nothing to protect the young children and old women who must face police dogs and fire hoses in the South while they engage in peaceful demonstrations. In its present form, this bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear of a police state.6Apparently, nationalizing the police state is what passes for progress in Trump’s America. It will not protect the hundreds and thousands of people that have been arrested on trumped charges.7Too easy, really. What about the three young men, SNCC field secretaries in Americus, Georgia, who face the death penalty for engaging in peaceful protest?

As it stands now, the voting section of this bill will not help the thousands of black people who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama and Georgia, who are qualified to vote, but lack a sixth-grade education. “One man, one vote” is the African cry. It is ours too. It must be ours!8No coincidence that Trump will be running the vote suppression racket of the millennium in 2020.

We must have legislation that will protect the Mississippi sharecropper who is put off of his farm because he dares to register to vote. We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns five dollars a week in a home of a family whose total income is $100,000 a year. We must have a good FEPC bill.

My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution.9As opposed to Republicans, who are committed to serious social devolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation.10Nothing new here. There are exceptions, of course.11Hat tip to 2020 Mitt, even if not so much 2012 Mitt. We salute those. But what political leader can stand up and say, “My party is the party of principles”? For the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland.12Senator James Eastland. Segregationist Democrat from Mississippi (1941-1978). The party of Javits13Senator Jacob Javits, liberal Republican Senator from New York (1956-1980) is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?14SPOILER ALERT: Not the Republicans.

Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham? Where is the political party that will protect the citizens of Albany, Georgia? Do you know that in Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted, not by the Dixiecrats, but by the federal government for peaceful protest?15It’s probably not coincidence that Albany was an early COVID hotspot, or that human coat-rack Bryan Kemp is purporting to sue any local public official who even mentions the word “mask.” In other words, still not the Republican Party. But what did the federal government do when Albany’s deputy sheriff beat Attorney C.B. King and left him half-dead?16Say his name.What did the federal government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby?17Say her name.

To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient.1857 years now and counting. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen.1957 years now and counting. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again.20You get the idea. And then you holler, “Be patient.”21Probably truer than I’d like to admit, but then I met rich, white people, and the problem became obvious. I apologize for my naivete. How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.22MLK:”Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” Republicans: “I can’t wear a mask because ‘MURICA!”

I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation.23Tickets still available. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.24See point 1 below. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution. For in the Delta in Mississippi, in southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and all over this nation, the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom.25Better late than never for the rest of us, I hope.

They’re talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond26Ross Barnett was Governor of Mississippi at the time. George Wallace was, uh, George Wallace. Strom Thurmond was the long-serving Senator from South Carolina. Thurmond was a Democrat in 1963, but switched parties in 1964 to support Barry Goldwater, presaging the Republican Party’s adoption of white supremacy. will not stop this revolution. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South; through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham.27See point 2 below. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. 28An extraordinary metaphor for our day. We must say: “Wake up America! Wake up!”29But go ahead Republicans. Keep mocking “wokeness.” For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.30Less than 100 days. Tick tock.

With regard to the two points above, point 1 is that Lewis wanted to connect the dots between civil rights and equality and America’s founding revolution. I tend to agree with him on this point, while understanding that the right is currently holding the Founders hostage. The hostages may have to be shot; the circumstances are dire and the terrorists are (literally) in the White House. But if any opportunity remains to draw that connecting line, we should try to do so.

Point 2 is that March leaders made Lewis rewrite the last part of his speech before delivering it.31I did not know this, and learned it in research, which I credit.

Instead of marching with the “spirit of love,” Lewis intended to encourage the crowd:

We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.

I do not know which version would have been better to deliver, given the intervening six decades. But this sounds like it would have been a far better place to be in 2020 than where we are now.

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