By Robert Mann
The sound of speeches and music wafted across the National Mall in Washington on the balmy afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963. A crowd of several hundred thousand flooded the space between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, all there for the historic “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”
But even as the program began and the speakers began addressing the crowd, conflict erupted inside a guardhouse under the massive seat of Lincoln’s statue. Surrounding 23-year-old John Lewis – son of an Alabama sharecropper and the new president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC) – were the giants of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Roy Wilkins.
A Baptist seminary graduate and ardent believer in nonviolent protest, Lewis would be one of 10 major speakers that afternoon. His original text had startled organizers with its threat to “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.”
The Catholic archbishop who would deliver the invocation refused to pray until Lewis removed these offending words: “‘Patience’ is a dirty and nasty word.” Lewis had done that the night before. But now his compatriots demanded more changes.
One of the 13 original Freedom Riders in 1960 who desegregated bus routes from Washington to New Orleans, Lewis’ courage was well known. He didn’t surrender easily. During his bus rides, he’d been arrested by Southern policemen and beaten bloody by racist mobs (he would again be brutally assaulted during a historic march at Selma, Ala., in 1965.) Eventually, on this day, he softened his speech more.
- 5 faces of the March on Washington (cnn.com)
- Rep. John Lewis’ Speech at the 1963 March on Washington (digbysblog.blogspot.com)
- Moment in 1963 March on Washington now a stamp (sacbee.com)
- Rep. John Lewis Remembers Historic March on Washington (abcnews.go.com)
- Asa Philip Randolph: The often overlooked inspiration for the March on Washington (jacksonville.com)
- PHOTOS: A look back at the March on Washington, 50 years later (tv.msnbc.com)
- 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington in Photos (tv.msnbc.com)