Several years ago, journalist David Remnick wrote an article about President Obama and civil rights legend Congressman John Lewis who is the only surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington. He wrote:
At the March on Washington, King’s speech was the most eloquent, Lewis’s the most radical. Lewis was just twenty-three at the time, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In the original draft of his speech, the demand for racial justice and “serious revolution” was so fearless that, in the last minutes before the program began, Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, and other movement organizers negotiated with him to remove any phrases that might offend the Kennedy Administration. Lewis planned to say, “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.” He had to lose the bit about Sherman’s army, but the rest of the text, capped by its final warning—”We will not be patient!”––left no doubt about Lewis or about the audacious generation he represented.
Two years later, in Selma, Lewis led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge straight into a blockade set up by Alabama state troopers. The first nightstick came down on Lewis’s skull. The troopers used whips, horses, a hose wrapped in barbed wire. Along with Lewis, ninety demonstrators were injured. At the White House, Lyndon Johnson watched it all on television and deepened his resolve to push the Voting Rights Act. The day before Obama’s Inauguration, which marked what would have been King’s eightieth birthday, Lewis told a visitor at his office in the Cannon House Office Building, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”
After taking the oath of office, at the luncheon that followed, the new president was asked by Congressman Lewis to sign a commemorative photograph. He did, and the first African-American president wrote across the picture, “Because of you John.”
The fire that burned in the soul of the youngest speaker 50 years ago keeps him fighting still.
By Michael Piazza
The Center for Progressive Renewal