WASHINGTON—Recently, the U.S. Congress held its commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. House and Senate leadership spoke and Rep. John Lewis was the keynote speaker. His statement follows:
When I look back on August 28, 1963, the day of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I see it as one of this nation’s finest hours. The American people pushed and pulled, they struggled, suffered, and some even died, to demonstrate their desire to see a more fair, more just society.
Their effort and their commitment ushered in a spirit of bipartisanship, collaboration and meaningful change into the Congress, and that period became one of the finest hours of American democracy. As Members of Congress who represent all the people of this country, we owe it to ourselves to take a moment to contemplate the meaning of this 50th anniversary.
What it will take for us to come together and make that kind of progress for the American people once again?
In 1963 leading up to the March on Washington, there had been an unbelievable amount of action on the part of the Movement. People were sitting-in at lunch counters, standing-in at theaters. They were beaten, arrested and jailed by the hundreds and thousands by state and local government officials. Medgar Evers had been assassinated in June of 1963 by agents of hate allowed to run rampant in Mississippi.
Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, had used fire hoses and police dogs on women and children involved in peaceful, non-violent protest. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and other leaders had been arrested and jailed. (more)
In 1963, millions of American citizens could not register to vote simply because of the color of their skin. Lawyers, doctors, college professors, high school principals, maids, butlers, sharecroppers and tenant farmers stood in unmovable lines all across the South just trying to register to vote.
Intimidation and fear surrounded the democratic process. People were afraid of losing their jobs, being run off their land, being beat or even killed for trying to register to vote. How did a society, committed to liberty and justice, allow the idea to take hold that the differences between us have some bearing on the value of human life?
Those of us in the movement made a decision that we had to do what we could, give our very lives if necessary, to demonstrate that those kinds of ideas are not true. The morning of the march we met with Democratic and Republican leaders right here on Capitol Hill on the House and Senate side.
If you come to my office, you will see a photo of the end of our meeting with Senator Everett Dirksen, a Republican who played a major role in helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And the only member still here who voted for that act is the dean of this Congress and my dear friend, Rep. John Dingell.
The plan was that we would leave the Senate, walk down Constitution Avenue and lead people to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But when we stepped out into the streets, we saw hundreds and thousands of people pouring out of Union Station.
They were black and white, Latino, Asian and Native American. There were members of every faith, speakers of many different languages. American citizens, especially those living in Europe, came from abroad to participate. Celebrities were there, but mostl there were countless and nameless thousands of ordinary people with extraordinary vision who came.
They wanted to bear witness to the truth that we are one people, one family, the human family. We are one people, one house, the American house. We were supposed to be leading them, but they were already marching. At that moment, the people were leading us and they literally pushed us down Constitution Avenue up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
About that time another colleague of ours, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, then a distinguished law student was probably already on the mall working as a volunteer for march organizer Bayard Rustin. Two months before the march, members of the so-called Big Six civil rights organizations met with President John F. Kennedy at the White House. Just days before, I had been elected chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and meeting with the President was my first official act. It was at that meeting that A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the dean of our delegation, told President Kennedy that we were going to march on Washington.
The President was concerned. He started twisted and turning in his chair. He asked us whether we thought there would be violence. Mr. Randolph said in his baritone voice, “Mr. President this will be a peaceful, nonviolent protest.”
Public officials were not so sure. Six thousand police were deployed in Washington. 15 thousand troopers were surrounding the city. Liquor sales were banned, a major league baseball game was cancelled, and police even rigged our sound system so they could pull the plug if necessary.
But a spirit had engulfed the leadership of the Movement and the participants. (more)
People came to that march like they were on their way to a religious service, like they were going to a camp meeting. As Mahalia Jackson sang, “How We Got Over,” she drew thousands of us together, and in a strange sense it seemed like the whole place started rocking. Somehow and some way, the philosophy of peace, love, and non-violence had been instilled in the very being of all the participants.
We truly believed that in every human being–even those who were violent toward us–there was a spark of the divine, and no person had the right to scar or destroy that spark. We had a right to protest for what was right, Dr. King would say. We had a right to demand that this nation respect the dignity and the worth of every human being. People were moved and inspired by that vision of justice and equality, and they were willing to put their very lives on the line for a cause greater than themselves.
Dr. King inspired all of us that day with words that embodied what we all believed. He was the last speaker, but I was number six. I was the young upstart who said, “We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all….
Near the end of my speech I said, “Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?”
I said, “We must seek more than civil rights; we must work for the community of love, peace and true brotherhood. Our minds, souls and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all people.”
We have come a great distance since that day, but many of the issues that gave rise to that march are still pressing needs in our society—violence, poverty, hunger, long-term unemployment, homelessness, voting rights, and the need to protect human dignity.
We have come a great distance, but we are not finished yet. We still need to usher in a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas. We still need to find a way to humanize our political institutions, our businesses and our system of education.
50 years later, those of us who are committed to the cause of justice need to pace ourselves because our struggle does not last for one day, one week or one year, but it is the struggle of a lifetime, and each generation must do its part. There will be progress, but there will also be setbacks. We must continue to have hope and be steeled in our faith that this nation will one day become a truly multiracial democracy. But until that day we must continue to work. We must not give up or give in, but keep the faith. And when we see people hurting and suffering, we must be ready to take action. We must have a sense of urgency to use the power granted us to help end human suffering.
What the March on Washington is saying to us today is that we are at our best as a people and as a Congress when we understand that our differences do not divide us. We will be at our best when we finally accept that we are one people, one family, the American family. We all live in the same house, the American house, the world house.
It is saying that no one but no one is worthless and that everyone can make a contribution. The March on Washington is saying to us today that we, as a nation and as a people, can come together. We can unite for the common good. We can believe again in that divine spark within us all to use the authority granted us to accomplish great things for all Americans and not just for some. (more)
After the march was over when the speeches were done, when the singing had finished, President Kennedy invited us all to the White House and he was standing in the door of the Oval Office beaming. He looked like a proud father. He shook each of our hands and said, “You did a good job….
“You did a good job. And to Martin Luther King Jr. he said, “And you had a dream.” Let’s continue the work that has already begun to build a Beloved Community, a nation and a world community at peace with itself that values the dignity and the worth of every citizen and every human being. Thank you.