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The Making of John Lewis’ 1963 March on Washington Speech

John Lewis' 1963 speech bluntly assailed deficiencies in the civil rights bill others were championing — but succeeded in doing so without undermining the day’s unity.

[Read John Lewis' 1963 March on Washington speech here -- moderator]

The tides of history sand down complex events to smooth, shiny baubles, and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — whose 60th anniversary arrives Monday, Aug. 28 — is no exception.

This oversimplification of history is at work not only with respect to Martin Luther King’s historic speech, which decried persistent Black poverty before dreaming of racial harmony, but also that of John Lewis, at 23 the march’s youngest speaker. Anointed a veritable saint before his death in 2020, Lewis was regarded back then as an enfant terrible fronting a headstrong new generation of rebels. Neither caricature quite captures the principled yet pragmatic Lewis, whose 1963 speech bluntly assailed deficiencies in the civil rights bill others were championing — but who succeeded in doing so without undermining the day’s unity.

Lewis’s experience with his controversial speech offers us a window onto the competing political pressures at work — the tricky context of an evolving protest movement groping for the right mix of defiance and accommodation. Striking such a delicate balance remains a challenge and an imperative for protest movements pushing for social change today.

That John Lewis even spoke at the March on Washington was something of a fluke. Only weeks earlier, he had been tapped as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a fledgling body formed during the lunch-counter sit-ins of 1960. Of all SNCC’s units, Lewis’s Nashville chapter was the most thoroughly steeped in Gandhian nonviolence, and among the Nashvillians Lewis had imbibed those teachings most completely. After the Nashville movement forced the city to thoroughly integrate its public facilities in May 1963, Lewis — with his earnest, gentle demeanor and unimpeachable devotion to peaceful methods — was a natural choice to become SNCC’s public face.\Even as those methods led that spring to major victories in Nashville and (more famously) Birmingham, however, discontent with the Gandhian ways was mounting. The Birmingham campaign spawned demonstrations in 200 cities nationwide, and while many proceeded peacefully, some — such as in Cambridge, Md. — turned violent, sparking fears of mass mayhem that summer.

Media commentators now spoke of the “new militancy.” King would use this ambiguous term in his March on Washington speech. To some, like Lewis, militance meant not a renunciation of nonviolence but an intensification of protest, the adoption of a defiant edge. But rivals of King’s such as Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X threatened that rioting would rock America’s streets if the government didn’t act on civil rights.

Partly to stave off violence, President John F. Kennedy announced a sweeping civil rights bill that June. At that moment, too, the movement elders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were lining up co-sponsors for the Washington march. Many of SNCC’s young radicals balked, fearing it would be, Lewis later recalled, “a lame event, organized by the cautious, conservative traditional power structure of Black America.” But Lewis, an inveterate optimist, naturally inclined to cooperate and compromise, was for it.

On June 22, Lewis — who just several years earlier had been living with nine siblings in a shotgun shack on an Alabama farm — joined some 30 civil rights honchos in the White House Cabinet Room to meet with the president. Kennedy intended to dissuade them from holding the march, which, because of the outbursts earlier that summer, he feared might turn destructive.

Awed to be in such august company, Lewis stayed silent through the meeting. But King, Randolph and others made clear that the march would take place. Kennedy acquiesced and then pivoted, spending the rest of the summer trying to turn the gathering into a rally to pass his bill.SNCC, meanwhile, scored its own victory. Once shut out of meetings of the major civil rights groups, it now won recognition as one of the six main march sponsors. That meant a speaking slot for Lewis before an audience immeasurably larger than he had ever addressed.

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Always self-effacing, Lewis believed he had been asked to speak not because of who he was but because of the organization he led. He wanted his remarks to reflect the views of SNCC as a whole, which meant something more combative than he might have drafted otherwise. SNCC’s executive secretary, James Forman, wanted the march to be “the forum from which we articulated to the nation a militancy not heard before from civil rights organizations.” In SNCC’s cramped warren of rooms on Raymond Street in Atlanta, upstairs from a tailor shop, Lewis jotted down his ideas. Nancy Stearns, a SNCC colleague, typed up drafts and offered input, as did Forman and others.

The weekend before the march, Lewis went to New York City. Stevie Wonder and Thelonious Monk were headlining a benefit concert at the Apollo Theater. Lewis stayed with Rachelle Horowitz, a Rustin deputy who lived in a union-owned cooperative in the West 20s. Her one-bedroom flat was a hub that summer for the young activists passing through; here, Lewis met with Eleanor Holmes, a Yale Law School student helping Rustin organize logistics (and decades later Lewis’s congressional colleague), and a 22-year-old Bob Dylan dropped by to play guitar for SNCC’s Dorie Ladner.

Lewis showed his speech around. It was tough. In it, Lewis said that SNCC “cannot wholeheartedly support the administration’s civil rights bill,” calling it “too little and too late.” He blasted the Justice Department for bringing charges against SNCC workers in Albany, Ga., while failing to indict police officers who had brutalized a local activist and his pregnant sister-in-law.

Some wanted an even sharper edge. Tom Kahn, a young socialist close to Rustin, added a line invoking the Civil War “March to the Sea” of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, in which Union forces had lain waste to Confederate rail lines, houses, and farms throughout Georgia. “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did,” the Brooklyn-reared Kahn wrote. “We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground.” As if grasping the incongruity between his incendiary words and Lewis’s actual beliefs, he added: “nonviolently.”

Lewis ran it by Rustin. “It’s actually terrific,” Rustin said. “Now fold this up, John, and keep it in your pocket.”

In Washington on Tuesday, the day before the march, SNCC workers circulated advance copies of Lewis’s speech. One made its way to Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, who would be giving the invocation the next day. That night, Rustin summoned Lewis to his hotel suite, where he explained that the archbishop was demanding revisions. In particular he disliked a line describing “patience” as “a dirty and nasty word.” Though irked by the outside interference, Lewis acquiesced, considering it a minor change.

But trouble was only beginning. By Wednesday others had also lodged objections. At the Lincoln Memorial, with crowds massing along the Reflecting Pool, Lewis, Forman, and Courtland Cox of SNCC battled a rotating cast of march leaders over new alterations.

Someone objected to the phrases “revolution” and the “masses” — but Randolph, an old socialist, came to Lewis’s defense. King, reading the line about General Sherman, said, perceptively, “John, that doesn’t sound like you.” It was nixed. Everyone demanded that Lewis endorse the Kennedy bill, which he agreed to do, but with reservations he would enumerate.

Finally, Randolph appealed to Lewis’s pragmatism. “Would you young men accommodate an old man?” he asked. “I’ve waited all my life for this opportunity. Please don’t ruin it.”

In a vestibule within the memorial, Forman made the changes on a little Underwood typewriter. Lewis was now focused on his delivery. He spoke with a thick rural accent and an occasional stammer and would be reading the freshly revised text for the first time in front of 250,000 people. From over Forman’s shoulder he implored, “Don’t change too much!”

Pointedly, Lewis assailed the weakness of the bill’s voting rights provisions. He faulted the omission of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee to ensure job opportunities for Black people. He criticized the bill, too, for not resurrecting what was known as Title III of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, a section excised during legislative sausage-making, that would have empowered the U.S. attorney general to sue local officials over police abuses.

Even after delivering his confrontational remarks, Lewis appreciated and celebrated all that the march did achieve. He and the other leaders went to the White House and then to television studios on Wisconsin Avenue for interviews on the old Metropolitan Broadcasting Network. On the air, Lewis, free to say whatever he wanted, sounded more like a King acolyte than a revolutionary firebrand.

“What raised my heart,” Lewis said, “was to see hundreds and thousands of young white people walking the streets hand in hand with young Negroes.” The “beloved community,” he said, using a term popular in nonviolent circles, would be realized only with “people together, both Black and white.” The forging of a harmonious interracial political coalition was an indispensable part of achieving a society free of racism.

Ultimately, the march united a broad alliance to pass Kennedy’s bill after his death, in the form of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned formal racial discrimination from most spheres of public life. But not all of the goals that Lewis articulated would be realized with the 1964 law.

It would take a separate bill — and a separate march — in 1965 to secure voting rights for Black Americans, and even the Voting Rights Act’s protections would be eroded by the Supreme Court in our own time. The federal ability to crack down on local police abuse didn’t become law until the 1994 crime bill, and its provisions still haven’t ended the scourge of police brutality. Employment and income disparities between the races still mock our aspirations to full equality. To commemorate the march after 60 years, we should acknowledge these long-deferred goals as well as those that were attained.Lewis reconciled SNCC’s unvarnished appraisal of the Kennedy bill with his elders’ understanding of the political benefits of a positive, uplifting event. The moment demanded a fierce adherence to principle and a willingness to listen and negotiate. Lewis exhibited both, just as he later would in his 33 years in Congress.

Today, many Americans — activists, politicians, citizens — struggle with whether to oppose injustices with unyielding force or to chip away at them through pragmatic compromise. The same difficult choices faced Lewis and the other march participants in 1963, but they found a way forward. They benefited from a political imagination that was morally grounded but strategically flexible, as well as the good fortune to have a baby-faced newcomer to politics just 23 years old — a mere child — to lead them.