S. 13 originals. He knew how to preach, he'd been doing it since he was just a kid, a sharecropper son on a tenant farm in Pike County, Alabama, in the 1940s, John Robert Lewis had honed his speaking style to a congregation of the family's chickens, learning to manage a stutter as he shared the word of God with a tiny flock of feathered creatures. Now, less than two decades later, he'd be preaching to a nation standing in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, August 28th, 1963, John Lewis was the youngest speaker on the program of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a landmark in the mid century movement for civil rights and equal justice.
Coconuts, slow down and stop, we will not stop all of the forces of Islam for a while, then we must stop this revolution. We do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come. We will not confine our marching to Washington. We were marched through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville to restricts the Cambridge. What are you gonna march from the spirit of law and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today by the force of our demand, our determination and our numbers, we shall finish the segregated South into a thousand pieces, put them together with an image of law and democracy.
We must wake up and have a break up. But we cannot stop and we will not and cannot be paid. I'm Jon Meacham, and this is it was said Episode nine, John Lewis, we want our freedom now.
The nonviolent movement is going to march through the south and really tear the south into a thousand fragments and remake the South in the image of God and democracy, what he was saying was that it was too little and that they needed more support for all the civil rights workers who are being arrested in the south and so forth, that there had to be a greater federal commitment to the movement. They would not slow down. They were not going to put the brakes on everything.
We heard the power of John Lewis, his voice, and it was an echo of the power of the organization that he represented. It had been a remarkable journey. Born in 1940, the great grandson of a slave, John Robert Lewis, had had an innate revulsion to the segregated order of Jim Crow, Alabama.
He'd gone to Nashville in the fall of 1957 to study at American Baptist Theological Seminary and soon encountered the Reverend James Lawson, an architect of the nonviolent assault on segregation, a leader of the student sit ins to desegregate lunch counters and department stores. Lewis became a Freedom Rider in 1961, arrested numerous times and occasionally beaten.
He emerged as a key figure in the civil rights movement, rising to the chairmanship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also known as Snick.
So when the March on Washington happened and Sneek thought the march on Washington was a distraction, they wanted to continue to organize.
This is the author and professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University, Epicloud.
But SNEEK had always been the more radical element. In some sense. They disagreed with the approach that you create this kind of enormous theater around segregation or around the violence that defended segregation, drew attention of the nation and then move on. SNEEK was more of an organized grassroots organization. They invested long term in communities. And we must remember John Lewis was the chair of SNEEK from 1963 to 1966. There is the insistence on the power of everyday folk, the violence that everyday people in the bowels of the South faced, the insistence that they would not slow down.
They were not going to put the brakes on everything. We heard the power of John Lewis, his voice, and it was an echo of the power of the organization that he represented. That was Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee speaking on that rostrum that day. It was in this role that he was slated to speak on the largest of stages, the march on Washington, a major march in the nation's capital, was not a new idea. The dean of civil rights activist A.
Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, had broached the idea in 1941 out of frustration with the Roosevelt administration's reluctance to integrate the defense industries in a difficult meeting in the Oval Office. FDR told Randolph that a president did not negotiate with a gun at his head. Randolph reaffirmed his pledge to summon a hundred thousand black people to the Capitol. A compromise was brokered. FDR would sign an executive order desegregating defense employment, at least in part in exchange for Randolph's cancellation of the march.
Randolph agreed a quarter century later. In 1963, plans for a march on Washington were underway anew, and a different American president wanted the same thing. FDR had wanted an end to those plans.
The leaders of the march are now coming down the northwest driveway of the White House. That will shortly be going in to see the president.
They are being led by Walter Reuther, the UAW, Martin Luther King, James Farmer at ten thirty on the morning of Saturday, June twenty second, nineteen sixty three, the president met with Martin Luther King, John Lewis and other leaders at the White House. Kennedy appeared preoccupied, greeting each caller with a simple hello, no names, Lewis recalled the president's agenda was clear. Call off the proposed march and focus on passing his civil rights bill. As Kennedy said, we want success in Congress, not just a big show at the Capitol, Randolph replied.
The Negroes are already in the streets.
It is very likely impossible to get them off if they are bound to be in the streets. In any case, is it not better that they be led by organizations dedicated to civil rights and disciplined by struggle rather than to leave them to other leaders who care neither about civil rights nor about nonviolence? You know, there's this interesting kind of evolution of the black freedom struggle with the mid 20th century. There is this initial description of the NAACP, for example, as this radical organization.
Right. And then King shows up with the Montgomery bus boycott and an NSCLC And that is viewed as this radical escalation of black struggle in comparison to the legal strategy of the NAACP. And then, of course, the student sit ins radicalized it even more in those wildfires, sit ins that we saw in Nashville and Atlanta across the south and then organized at Shaw University as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April of 1960. John Lewis was part of those students, those young people, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, who went into the bowels of the south, sometimes by two alone, three people, four people alone to organize sharecroppers.
Lewis was among them. They were committed to nonviolence and they risked everything to go into the bowels of the south. John Lewis emerged as a leader of those young people, not because he was the smartest, as Eleanor Holmes Norton said, but because he was the bravest. He risked everything the meeting with JFK in June of 1963 was Lewis's first visit to the White House, his first session with an American president. To him, the scene in the Cabinet Room was surreal, but then nearly everything about his life had been surreal.
Lewis recalled President Kennedy's body language was very clear. He twisted in his chair. His face told us that he thought a march on Washington would be chaos. Well, I worry there will be problems, Kennedy said at the meeting. There might be violence and Congress could resent the pressure of a mass march at his doorstep. Why have a huge demonstration? The president wondered when the focus should be on passing the civil rights bill. Martin Luther King then weighed in.
It is not a matter of either or, but of both. And King said, take the question of the march on Washington. This could serve as a means through which people with legitimate discontents could channel their grievance under disciplined, nonviolent leadership. It could also serve as a means of dramatizing the issue and mobilizing support in parts of the country which don't know the problems at first hand. I think it will serve a purpose. It may seem ill timed.
Frankly, I have never engaged in any direct action movement which did not seem ill timed. Some people thought the children's crusade in Birmingham ill timed. Realizing that he couldn't stop the march, the president threw his brother. The attorney general sought to control it. John Douglass, an assistant to Robert Kennedy, worked with the civil rights organizers settling on the Lincoln Memorial, not the Capitol, as the site of a Kennedy advance man was stationed behind the memorial with a power switch that could cut off the microphones at the podium that faced the vista of the mall.
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Lewis had worked on his own speech for a week or so, beginning by dictating thoughts to a Snick staffer, Nancy Stern, in Atlanta. I thought it was a very simple, very elementary statement, he recalled. The night before the march at the Statler Hilton, Julian Bond put out copies of Lewis's speech.
Bayard Rustin, the chief organizer, called Lewis down for a meeting of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, among others, was upset by some of the language in the prepared remarks. Lewis and his Senate colleagues pushed back. We really argued about the speech, Lewis recalled, and the dispute carried over onto the day of the march itself. He was 23 years old at the time, he's the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, it's a collectively written speech.
Parts of the speech had been eliminated because there was unease with the more radical parts of the speech with some white clergy who were allies of the movement.
This is the author and professor of history at the University of Texas, Peniel Joseph.
But what remains is truly, truly powerful. I mean, I think the most powerful parts of the speech is when John Lewis, who's twenty three from Troy, Alabama, the son of sharecroppers who then get their own farm, is talking about how the nonviolent movement is going to march through the south and really tear the south into a thousand pieces, a thousand fragments and remake the South in the image of God and democracy.
When you listen to that, that sends chills down your spine because this is this twenty three year old student activist, deeply religious, deeply ethical, one of the disciples of Martin Luther King Jr. But it's a really militant speech. He's saying that the country can't wait. Black people can't wait.
In a small room inside the Lincoln Memorial, Lewis and the other leaders, including Randolph and King, went back and forth out front. The program had begun. The draft was tough on the Kennedy bill. And Roy Wilkins confronted Lewis, telling him that the remarks would set back the cause of the legislation. Mr. Wilkins, Lewis replied, You don't understand. I'm not just speaking for myself. I'm speaking for my colleagues and sneck and for the people in the Delta and in the black belt.
You haven't been there, Mr. Wilkins. You don't understand. Things were deteriorating then Randolph made a direct appeal to Lewis's spirit of generosity, John Randolph said Lewis thought the old man might cry. We've come this far together. Let us stay together. How could I say no? Lewis recalled. It would be like saying no to Mother Teresa.
So when we think about John Lewis, historically, I think that if we go back to the March on Washington speech, you really see the metal and the character of John Lewis in ways that might be surprising because he's this open hearted, deeply empathetic, deeply courageous individual. But in that speech, you see the anger of that generation, even as he's committed to nonviolence, you see the frustration of that generation, because before that speech, John Lewis had been arrested.
He's been beaten and brutalized, not just that Selma, but in Alabama as a freedom rider. He was in parchment penitentiary for thirty nine days as a twenty one year old. All these things scar you and traumatize you. And so the John Lewis at the March on Washington is somebody who's impatient, is somebody who is bold, courageous, very eloquent, but much more militant than we remember.
Lewis tweaked to speech. He cut a frontal assault on the administration. In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration's civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late. He lost a direct assertion of good versus evil for the first time in one hundred years. This nation is being awakened to the fact that segregation is evil and that it must be destroyed in all forms. He forewent this cry. The revolution is at hand and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.
The non-violent revolution is saying we will not wait for the courts to act for we have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the president, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power outside of any national structure that could and would assure us of victory. He also agreed to drop this. The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it in the courts.
Listen, Mr. Kennedy. Listen, Mr. Congressman, listen. Fellow citizens, the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom. And we must say to the politicians that there won't be a cooling off period. A shot at Robert Kennedy's call for calm during the Freedom Rides.
And gone was this line 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, John King said to him in the harried moments before the speech. That doesn't sound like you. Time was short on the steps of the memorial. In his deep baritone, Randolph introduced Lewis.
I was a pleasure to present to the great audience young John Lewis, national chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member John Lewis. His amended notes in hand, Lewis approached the lectern, he wore a dark suit, a dark tie and his March credential around his neck. He shook Bayard Rustin hand, then took a few steps more and shook Randolph's unfolding the papers of his speech. Lewis looked down at his feet, braced himself, wet his lips, faced the seven microphones on the rostrum, bobbed his head once more and began.
He would sway slightly as he went along his body, emphasizing certain points.
We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. Or hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. Whatever civil starvation wages are no words at all. While we stand here, they are sharecroppers in the Delta and Mr Slipper. What I feel working for less than three dollars a day, 12 hours a day while we stand here in our studios in jail on top of charges, we come here today with a great sense of misgiving.
He was speaking well, he was preaching and he knew his business when it came to preaching. But an organizer reached over at this point and adjusted for the microphones to bring them down a bit in front of Lewis. He didn't miss a beat.
It is true that we support the administration's civil rights bill. We support it with great reservation. However, unless Title three is put in this bill, there is nothing to protect the young children and all women who must faced police dogs and fire hoses in a flower pot and peaceful demonstration. The crowd reacted for the first time at this line, clapping its approval in its presence from this bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear of a police state.
It will not protect the hundreds and thousands of people who have been arrested. Opponents drop charges. What about the three young men? Smithfield secretary in Americus, Georgia, who faces the death penalty for engaging in peaceful protest at the Staten Island section of the. Well, I have the power to look like people who want to vote, but not have the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama and Georgia who qualify to vote for lack of a fixed grade education.
One man, one vote. It is an element of Barack Obama who must be our. More applause, he took the pause to check his text, the sprawling setting in the echoing acoustics of the mall made it difficult to form a sustained, intimate connection between preacher and congregants. But if the crowd wasn't electric, it was attentive and appreciative.
We must have legislation that will protect them from the problem of farming coming down to register to vote. We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. We need to make sure the quality of our women who are involved in the home of a family income is one hundred thousand dollars a year. We must have a good bill. FPC was the acronym for the Federal Employment Practices Committee, which FDR created as part of his agreement with Randolph back in 1941.
Again, applause. A pattern had emerged. The audience was responding to specifics to detailed calls for action.
Markram, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By large, American politics is dominated by politicians, will be a real emotional moment in the lives of all form of political, economic and social importation. Now, of course, we salute those, but what political leader instead of my party is the party of principles? What a party opportunity for the party. Obviously.
Applause at the mention of the segregationist Mississippi senator who was like Kennedy, a Democrat, everybody a job for the party of Goldwater. Applause again at the mentions of Jacob Javits, the liberal Republican senator from New York, and Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican from Arizona. Where is my party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham?
Where is the political party that will protect us from Albany, Georgia? We are very impatient. And wait, we will not have an occupation. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now. He drew out the gradually stretching the word of the rising voice and punching the air with his right hand as he called for freedom. Now the audience went along with him following his cadences and gave him his most sustained cheers. There was something more elemental in the clapping at this juncture, Lewis had hit a deeper nerve without glancing at his pages, he continued holding eye contact with the masses before him.
We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We're tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. You have to be patient. How long have we been patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. He touched his left ear briefly, a small human gesture as he made the turn to his crescendo, almost quietly, he went on. We do not want to go to jail, but we will go to jail because this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood and true peace appeal to all of you to get in the spring revolution.
That is, people in this nation get in and stay in the streets, not arrested in Arab village and this nation. Until freedom come to a revolution of government in this country, we must get in this revolution and complete the revolution on the delta of Mississippi, in southwest Georgia, in Alabama, in Harlem and Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation, the black masses on a march for jobs and freedom. Coconuts slow down and stop.
We will not stop all of the forces of Islam or an end while this will not stop this revolution.
Slowly, the crowd reacted their approval of his words rising and calls and cheers.
We do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress. The time will come. We will not confine our marching to Washington. We are marched through the streets of Jackson, to the streets of Danville districts, the Cambridge. At the roll call of flash points, the crowd applauded what a beautiful march, but the spirit of law and the spirit of dignity and that we have shown here today by the force of our demand, our determination and our numbers, we shall disaggregated evolve into a thousand pieces, put them together in an image of law and democracy.
We must wake up, wake up. But we cannot stop. And we will not and cannot be. For history, any time anywhere. Sign up for a seven day free trial of history, vault stream, full episodes of over 2000 award winning documentaries and series from the History Channel, Commercial Free on your favorite device. Plus, new videos are added to History Vault every week.
Sign up now and explore the greatest stories in history, from ancient civilizations to American history, modern warfare and more. To start your free trial, visit history vault dot com forward slash speech today. The remarks clocked in at about seven and a half minutes toward the end, Bayard Rustin, cigarette in hand, had leaned in and whispered something to Lewis. I think he was saying, close it out, John Lewis recalled. He was keeping the trains moving.
Read and watch now Lewis's speech is one of tempered passion. I recently asked Harry Belafonte about his memories of the march. Belafonte replied, Unlike popular opinion that Dr. King's I Have a Dream sermon was the speech of the march on Washington. That was not the case. The case was that John Lewis delivered a kind of Gettysburg Address. It was one of the most brilliant speeches I had ever heard. He spoke for the young for the future of America in closing his own address.
King spoke brilliantly, but from a mountaintop, a prophet bringing word from on high. Lewis spoke more simply from the valley among the people whose burdens he knew because they were his burdens to. After the speeches, a delegation of civil rights leaders called on President Kennedy at the White House, he's damn good, the president had said after watching King two. King Kennedy, with a nod, remarked, I have a dream to Lewis. Kennedy said, only I heard you speak.
Lewis was quiet.
His face gave no hint of how he felt about my speech. But I could guess, Lewis recalled of the president. Even with the changes he'd made at the last minute, Lewis had spoken bluntly about the limitations of politics. Where is our party? And the president, who believed he was risking everything for his civil rights legislation, was hardly thrilled with the suggestion that the administration's efforts fell short in any way. I mean, I think actually, John learned something from that speech as America learned something from it as well.
This is the professor and historian, Sean Wilentz.
I mean, what he was saying was that even though the civil rights legislation before Congress was something that they supported, that it was too little, that they needed more support for all the civil rights workers who were being arrested in the south and so forth, that that that there had to be a greater federal commitment to the movement than the Kennedy administration had yet marshaled. I mean, that's the part of the speech, very powerfully so. But I think also that in some ways, by toning it down a little bit, it was an even more effective speech instead of giving quite the Shermanesque marching through Georgia lines.
I mean, it's sort of there, but it's toned down, I think actually is more effective.
The group posed for photographs in the Oval Office. Lewis was obscured in the background, which was not uncommon in such moments. His Senate colleague, James Forman, long urged Lewis to be more aggressive. On occasions like this. You've got to get out front, Forman told Lewis. Don't let King get all the credit. Don't stand back like that. Get out front. Lewis demurred, yet he had become a national figure, part of the movement strategy, one ably executed by Julian Bond, was to keep the students nonviolent work constantly in the news.
With his election as snick chairman, Lewis was now someone who met with presidents, vice presidents and attorneys general, as well as with the grandest leaders of the movement from Randolph to King.
I think something that John learned that day, that the most militant rhetoric isn't always necessarily the most effective, that you can get your point across as he did very powerfully. But to do so with a certain degree of what shall we say, care to rhetoric. And I think it's something that was going to be part of his career, really for the rest of his life. Understanding that angry words are not necessarily the only way to get things done.
Lewis's humility remained remarkably intact as he rose to fame, his lack of polish, his quiet conviction and his unassuming physical presence created oddly but undeniably a kind of charisma, understood as a special grace that set him apart as a figure of note and of inspiration in the moral universe, of the kingdom of God, of what King and Lewis thought of as the beloved community reversal is the rule. It's fitting, then, that the rough edged John Lewis would be the means by which a smooth path should be carved through the wilderness of the world.
The history of the 20th century would be nobler if we could say that the march on Washington was in real time. What it's become, in retrospect, a clear turning point that brought white America to the recognition that, as King had said, it was time to include all, not just some, in the Jeffersonian creed of liberty. But our story is not so noble, nor is it so straightforward. Sixty percent of Americans told pollsters they disapproved of the march.
Only 23 percent approved. By May of 1964, fully 74 percent of whites thought demonstrations hurt the cause of civil rights, with only 16 percent saying demonstrations would help. Many whites thought the march to radical some black activists found it too timid. It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong, Malcolm X said of the march. What do you do? You integrate it with cream. You make it week. Lewis, though, believed in what he had said.
The speeches of Wednesday, August 28th, 1963, live in our memory, and rightly so, they would not have been delivered at that time and in that place and in that context for that audience. However, if the young African-Americans of the South had not marched into the fires of hate and of history. In the summer of 1963, reflecting on the civil rights bill, President Kennedy remarked to a friend, Sometimes you look at what you've done and the only thing you ask yourself is what took you so long to do it?
John Robert Kennedy told Lewis that same summer, the people, the young people of SNEEK have educated me. You have changed me. Now I understand. John Lewis, his long and valiant journey, ended in July of twenty twenty. He was remembered as a vital force for justice and as an example to the unfolding story of the nation. And that's what John Lewis teaches us. That's where real courage comes from, not from turning on each other. But by turning towards one another, by sowing hatred and division.
But by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with George. Perseverence. I'm discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk along. What a gift John Lewis was. We are also lucky to have had him walk with us for a while and show us the way. On the next episode of it was said. On a bright and snowy morning, a young president summons a nation and a generation to the work of history, John F.
Kennedy's enduring inaugural address. On the next it was. Thank you for listening to it was said a creation and production of C 13 originals, a division of Caden's 13 in association with the History Channel. Executive produced by me, Jon Meacham and Chris Corcoran. Directed by Lloyd Lockridge, edited, produced, engineered and master by Chris Bazil with production support and research by Bill Schulz and John McDermott and research assistants by Ian Mott. Creative consultation by Eli Lehrer and Jesse Katz, graphic design, marketing and publicity by Josephine of Frances Kirk, Courtney and Hillary Chef.
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