John Lewis’s Controversial March on Washington Speeches

United States Congressman John Lewis has had a lengthy battle in his fight for social justice and equality, having a career that spans half a century. While his passion for social justice, which was ignited by James Lawson, and his worked with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to integrate lunch counters started long before his March on Washington speech; it is arguably one of the most iconic speeches that Lewis gave early in his career. Lewis’s original speech was ridden with fiery speech powerful enough call his audience to the fight against racial injustices, unfortunately it was too controversial and he was asked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to amend his speech and make it more palatable for the politicians and moderate Americans who would be tuning in to his speech. For the purpose of this paper, I am going to dissect both of John Lewis’s March on Washington speeches, the initial draft as well as the more conservative version that he ultimately gave. I am laying claim that while his first draft is more militant and impactful, his final draft is the more fitting speech given the already tense racial relations of the time period and the fact he was presenting to a relatively moderate audience.

A young John Lewis would be considered a radical by today’s standards. Lewis was not merely asking for a slight change in minor ideals, he was demanding a complete social revolution- a major change in the dominant way of thinking as a way to simultaneously boost the standing of African Americans and dismantle white supremacy. As I mentioned earlier, Lewis was a member of the Student-Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which was a student-led organization that “held nonviolent demonstrations, organized grassroots groups, registered African American voters, and eventually for advocated the philosophy of Black Power” (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Alabma (SNCC)). Through his work with the SNCC, Lewis was on the front-lines being accosted by bigoted racists, furious for his demand for basic human decency. Lewis chronicles in March: Book 1 some of the cruelties he faced as he along with other SNCC members participated in the lunch counter sit-ins. Lewis reminisces on the training he and others received in preparation for the protests. He also mentions how their extensive training only partially prepared them for the inhumanity and indecency with which they were treated for merely demanding to be allowed to eat at a department store lunch counter (Aydin, Lewis and Powell).

As a member of the SNCC, it is no surprise where Lewis developed his radical ideology. The SNCC was doing groundbreaking work and subverting the status-quo of the Jim Crow South, one non-violent protest at a time.  It was much more militant that Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization headed by Dr. King. The SNCC was in part co-led by revolutionaries such as James Lawson and Diane Nash who were unafraid to literally risk their lives in the name of social justice. Diane Nash participated in Freedom Rides throughout the South, which were non-violent demonstrations in which students rode segregated interstate buses as a way to challenge the non-enforcement of Supreme Court rulings that deemed segregated buses as unconstitutional. When told by a member of then President John F. Kennedy’s staff that if she were to continue with the protests that she could very well could die, she merely responded that she and her peers had already signed their wills (Nelson). Lewis was also an active participant in these early demonstrations after being spurred into action by the teachings of James Lawson, who was the only person apart from Dr. King to blend religion and activism for Lewis (Aydin, Lewis and Powell). Lewis’s early Freedom Rides would hardly be the last of his on the ground activism, he would go on to participate in many non-violent protests and even march with Dr. King on the Edmund Pettus bridge on what would later be called “Bloody Sunday,” he chronicles this and other examples of his activism in his memoir “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement” (Lewis and D’Orso).

The overarching theme throughout both versions of his speech is the Civil Rights bill (an early version of what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and how it was not sufficient to improve the social standing of African Americans. Lewis spends much of the speeches critiquing the bill and highlighting its shortcomings. In his original, more controversial draft Lewis states “…we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill…” (Feeney). Lewis ultimately changes his wording for his final speech to say that they accept the Civil Rights bill but with heavy reservations (Feeney). He goes on to state how the Civil Rights bill as it was posed is “too little and too late” because it does not protect those who are being arrested for exercising their Constitutional right to protest nor does it ensure that African Americans will be allowed to vote. He changed his statement from denouncing the bill entirely, to reluctantly accepting the bill as a way to appease Dr. King and the politicians in attendance. Dr. King and the politicians in Washington had been engaged in a lengthy back and forth battle to reach some sort of compromise about the second-class treatments of African Americans in this era. The Jim Crow laws made it difficult for African Americans to vote and it was common for those seeking to exercise their Constitutional right to be met with violence and other repercussions. Lewis also makes note of how the bill fails to mention or account for income inequality. He uses an anecdote of a maid who earns $5 a week while the family she works for has an income of $100,000 a year to bring focus to the disparities. It was not uncommon for African American workers (women especially) to be underpaid for the work they did, or for them to be denied jobs other than menial jobs taking care of rich, White families. Lewis’s examples about the underpaid maid and those being attacked by police dogs as they protest both make it to the final draft of his speech. Although, their impact is cushioned by his arbitrary line between “good” and “bad” politicians he was forced to make.

Between the two drafts, the speeches are nearly identical; it is only the language Lewis uses that distinguishes his earlier version from his second. He uses sobering imagery and biting language in order to explain the Civil Rights bill’s shortcomings. He speaks in hypotheticals as he talks about how the bill “will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations…” While this sentence illustrates a reality for most people attempting to improve their way of living in the South through protests, it was ultimately left out of his final speech because it was too divisive. Much like today, the topic of police brutality was contentious and much too controversial for the racially mixed audience that was in attendance for the March on Washington.

By the middle of his speech Lewis starts to mention how he and others active in the fight for social equality are met with resistance in the form being told to wait. Towards the end of the original draft of Lewis’s speech, he makes allusions to “marching through the Segregated South like [Major General William T. Sherman] and burning down Jim Crow only to rebuild the fragmented South in the image of Democracy,”  while the sentiment can still be felt in his later draft, much of the feeling is lost (Feeney). He still talks about sending “a desegregated South into a thousand pieces and putting it back together in the image of God and Democracy” managing to realign religion with the movement, but without the burning imagery the speech loses its impact (Feeney). The imagery is still beautiful but it is not as biting. It is understandable why he removed the part about General Sherman as he and his troops literally looted and scorched the Earth as they traveled through the South on their way to the sea during the Civil War. The completion of their mission was a crippling blow for the South and any allusion to it would probably be frightening to Southern Whites, both moderates and those who were already angered by Lewis and other members of the SNCC who at the time were labeled agitators.

A new resurgence of civil rights and social justice is aiming to correct some of the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s shortcomings. The Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) started as a hashtag on twitter as a response to the senseless murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager who was slain by Officer Darren Wilson and whose dead body was left out in the street unattended for four hours in the August sun of Ferguson, Missouri. The hashtag was initially just supposed to be a reminder to the media and everyone else that Black lives do in fact matter, and was a reaction to what seemed like one police killing in a sea of thousands. BLM has since sprung into an organization modeled after the SNCC in that there is no singular leader of the movement, but instead multiple participants all over the United States who organize protests in the organization’s name.

The political goals of BLM are similar to those outlined by John Lewis in his March on Washington speech: police accountability/an end to police brutality, defending their right to protest, and minimizing (and eventually eliminating) racial disparities (Harris). BLM protesters typically organize in locations where people are murdered by police officers in order to gain public awareness in an attempt to bring the officers to justice. While Lewis’s and BLM’s end-goals are the same, their methods are completely different. Lewis was a product of his time and so his activism was linked to his religion whereas the BLM is all inclusive and much more LGBT+ friendly.

 

Works Cited

American experience. Freedom riders. Dir. Stanley Nelson. 2011. PBS Distribution. DVD.

Aydin, Andrew, John Lewis and Nate Powell. March: Book 1. Marietta: Top Shelf Productions, 2013. Print.

Feeney, Lauren. “Two Versions of John Lewis’ Speech.” 24 July 2013. Moyers & Company Website. Web. 27 April 2016.

Harris, Fredrick C. “The Next Civil Rights Movement.” Dissent (2015): 34-40. Print.

Lewis, John and Michael D’Orso. Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. eBook.

“Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Alabma (SNCC).” 16 November 2008. Encyclopedia of Alabama Online. Web. 27 April 2016.

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