Nearly 50 years after speaking at the Lincoln Memorial during a key moment in the Civil Rights Movement, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) went back to the scene alongside Bill Moyers to recount his memories of the “March on Washington.”
“It was unreal, unbelievable,” Lewis told Moyers. “When I got up to speak, I can see the people, the young people. I can see those middle aged and older people. I can see some members of Congress down near the foot of the podium. It was a sea of humanity.”
Lewis, who was the sixth out of 10 speakers during the Aug. 28, 1963 event in Washington, D.C. — best remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech — is the only one still alive today. He told Moyers that he came to the event not long after becoming the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was confident that the 250,000 people attending the gathering would hold true to the principles of civil disobedience set forth by the movement.
But Moyers, who was deputy director of the Peace Corps at the time and commuted into the city, told Lewis that the environment around the area was rife with tension, as authorities had canceled time off for the day and called in 15,000 paratroopers.
“The police were so nervous that they rigged your sound system in case they had to take it over when violence erupted,” Moyers explained. “So, you may have been calm, but there was a fear in the heart of the city that things were going to go badly.”
Lewis did reveal that other civil rights leaders were nervous about some remarks in the original version of his speech, including an exhortation that African-Americans “cannot be patient.”
“There was some people who said something like, ‘In the speech, you’re saying revolution, black masses. What are you talking about?’” Lewis recounted. “And A. Philip Randolph came to my rescue. He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the use of the word black masses. I use it in myself sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with the use of the word revolution. I use it in myself –’ so, for the most part, we kept that in it.”
Lewis also shared his memories of King’s speech, telling Moyers that as King continued, he knew that he was reaching not just the audience, but the American people.
“He had the largest audience he ever had,” Lewis said of King. “He had been to Washington before, like in 1957, on May 17, 1957 and spoke on the steps. But this audience was different. It was larger. And I think he was inspired. I think he was inspired by God almighty. I think he had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history. And he responded.”
Watch Moyers’ interview with Lewis, posted online Friday by Moyers & Company, below.