Today, as we all knew before a certain hurricane started heading up the East Coast, is the 48th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech that day, but he was only one speaker in a very long program.
Speakers at the march ranged from labor leader Walther Reuther to 1920s cabaret performer Josephine Baker, who flew in from her home in France specially for the occasion. Mahalia Jackson sang, as did Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
But other than King’s, only one speech from that day is remembered at all anymore. It’s the one given by John Lewis, the 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Lewis was (if you don’t count Dylan and Baez, each about a year younger) the youngest person to address the crowd, and perhaps the most radical. In the original draft of his speech Lewis slammed Kennedy and the Democrats pretty hard. He also promised to “march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did,” as well as…
Well, I’ll just let you read it.
Every history of the march on Washington talks about the way folks pressured John Lewis to change his speech, but I’ve never seen the two texts reproduced side-by-side, so I threw something together myself.
What follows is a marked up version of the speech as Lewis originally intended it, with edits showing how it was actually delivered. Cut material is in
strikethrough, new material is in blue, and the stuff that didn’t get altered is in black. (I haven’t bothered to show changes in punctuation or really minor stylistic edits.)
• • •
John Lewis, address to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963:
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
They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all.
While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi who are out in the fields working for less than three dollars a day, twelve hours a day. While we stand here, there are students in jail on trumped-up charges. Our brother James Farmer, along with many others, is also in jail. We come here today with a great sense of misgiving.
In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly It is true that we support the administration’s civil rights bill for it is too little and too late. We support it with great reservation, however. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality. This bill will not protect Unless Title III is put in this bill, there’s nothing to protect the young children and old women from who must face police dogs and fire hoses for engaging in in the South while they engage in peaceful demonstrations.
In its present form this bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear
in of a police state. This bill It will not protect the hundreds and thousands of people that have been arrested on trumped up charges. What about the three young men, SNCC field secretaries in Americus, Georgia, who face the death penalty for engaging in peaceful protest?
As it stands now, the voting section of this bill will not help the thousands of black
citizens people who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama and Georgia who are qualified to vote but lack a sixth-grade education. “One man, one vote!” is the African cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours. People We must have legislation that will protect the Mississippi sharecropper who is put off his farm because he dares to exercise his right to register to vote. We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. What is there in this bill to We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns five dollars a week in the home of a family whose total income is a hundred thousand dollars a year. We must have a good FEPC bill. 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. Your presence today proves that you have been aroused to the point of action.
My friends, let us not forget that we are
now involved in a serious revolution. This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromise and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation. There are exceptions, of course. We salute those. But what political leader here can stand up and say, “My party is the party of principles?” For the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our 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 the citizens of Albany, Georgia? In some parts of the South we work in the fields from sunup to sundown for $12 a week. Do you know that in Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted not by the Dixiecrats but by the federal government for peaceful protest? But what did the federal government do when Albany’s deputy sheriff beat attorney C. B. King and left him half dead? What did the federal government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby? It seems to me that the Albany indictment is part of a conspiracy on the part of the federal government and local politicians in the interest of expediency. I want to know, which side is the federal government on? The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The nonviolent 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 a victory.”
To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,”
we must say that “patience” is a dirty and nasty word. We must say that we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want to be free our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now. We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler “be patient!” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now! We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence. We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about. In the struggle, 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 do not want to go to jail, but we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.
The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it into 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. All of us must get in the revolution. I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and every hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution 0f 1776 is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution. For in the Delta of Mississippi, in southwest Georgia, in Alabama, Harlem, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation, the black masses are on the march! on a march for jobs and freedom.
They’re talking about slow down and stop.
We won’t stop now. We will not stop. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace and Thurmond will not stop this revolution. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. 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. streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. We shall fragment the By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy. We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I We must say to you “Wake up America!” “Wake up!” For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.