It has become known as one of the greatest protest movements of the modern era, and one of its most poignant and powerful moments was the great March on Washington by those fighting for civil rights. Led by Martin Luther King Jr., some 250,000 people (70% of whom were black) gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It became an iconic moment for how to mobilize and empower a nonviolent rally.
It could have turned out another way, however. John Lewis, now an American black congressman but on that day in 1963 was only 23 years old, tells of a key moment that ultimately turned the rally into a success.
Lewis was an angry and young black activist who had experienced enough of the status quo. He had been beaten by both white protesters and the police, so he was primed for this day to speak his mind. When asked to be one of the opening speakers prior to MLK he readied his remarks as if from a fire and brimstone sermon. He shared parts of his speech with rally organizers. One paragraph read: “We are now involved in a great social revolution. This nation is still a place cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with various forms of economic, political and social exploitation.” He was referring to young president, John Kennedy, and everyone knew it.
He was asked to join a few others behind the majestic seated statue of Abraham Lincoln. “We’ve come this far. Can we stay together? Can you change some things in your speech?” These questions, asked by the Dean of Black Leadership, A. Philip Randolph, infuriated Lewis and he pushed back. He didn’t trust JFK. Then Martin Luther King Jr. reminded him that Kennedy had asked the rally leaders to attend a meeting in the Oval Office with him following the march. If, as a result of Lewis’s volatile speech rioting erupted, then that meeting wouldn’t happen and the civil rights movement would suffer a major setback.
Congressman John Lewis
“I changed the speech on their advice, and I’m glad I did. How could I say no to them?” Lewis said recently. King had reminded Lewis that they had seen white supporters killed by the KKK and that it was a white president who was offering support. “They have to be given a chance,” King urged.
A few hours later they were in Kennedy’s White House office and working out how to collaborate together to work out effective civil rights legislation. It was a remarkable moment that would have been lost had Lewis not listened to wiser counsel and kept his powder dry. All these years later he acknowledges that change was already happening in society and that King and the others had placed their faith in that progress. Lewis could only see the prejudice and the beatings, however, until prevailed upon to expand his perspective.
Looking back on that important day, Lewis acknowledges that if his legitimate but caustic words had been uttered and violent eruptions occurred as a result, it was likely the civil rights legislation would never have passed the Congress of which he is now a member. He learned from King that activism involved two key components: pressing for change and then learning how to spot it once it has begun to occur. He learned that progress isn’t possible without change, but that change can’t be secured unless progress is acknowledged. That remarkable journey taught him something inestimably valuable, and he noted:
“The dissident stance assumed and cultivated patience. It taught us how to wait. It taught us waiting as patience. Waiting as a state of hope, not as an expression of hopelessness. It is not a sweet lie but a bitter truth. We must wait for the seeds we have planted to grow.”
Many of those revolutionary leaders have now passed, and the few that remain know that their time is brief. But the lessons they learned in those pivotal years have kept their dreams alive instead of flaming out in defeat and discouragement. Our modern era, so full of viewpoints and angry rhetoric, must learn again never to permit a blast of heat to obliterate the light of progress – just like that day behind Abraham Lincoln’s back.