This week, as we all know by now, is the 50th 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 to the US 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 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.
The original draft of Lewis’ speech was a blistering attack on racism, the white South, and the Democratic party. In it, Lewis predicted that a revolution was coming in America, one that would shake the nation to its foundations and remake the South completely. It was a great speech, but it was bit much for some of the march’s organizers.
On the day before the march, the Catholic archbishop of Washington DC — who was scheduled to give the opening invocation the next morning — received a copy of Lewis’ speech. The archbishop’s complaints sparked a crisis among march organizers, one that eventually pulled in government officials, labor leaders, and other white clergy. Even as the early speakers at the march were on stage, Lewis was huddled in a small guard station under the Abraham Lincoln statue in the memorial with Dr. King, A. Philip Randolph, and white church leader Eugene Carson Blake, negotiating changes.
The amended speech was typed up just moments before Lewis went on stage. Here are thirteen of the biggest changes made:
- His statement that there was “not one thing” in Kennedy’s civil rights bill to “protect our people from police brutality” was struck.
- His reference to Southerners in one Virginia town “who must live in constant fear in a police state” was softened to “fear of a police state.”
- A reference to “black citizens who want to vote” was changed to “black people who want to vote.”
- The statement “segregation is evil and … must be destroyed in all its forms” was cut.
- As was a declaration that America “is still a place of cheap political leaders.”
- A reference to politicians “who build their careers on immoral compromise and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation” was given the qualification “There are exceptions, of course. We salute those.”
- This paragraph was eliminated in its entirety:
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.”
- As was this one:
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.
- And this one:
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.
- In a sentence in which Lewis called on Americans to “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 is complete,” the phrase “the revolution” was changed to “the revolution of 1776.”
- A declaration that those present at the March on Washington would eventually march 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” was struck.
- His closing declaration that the movement would “splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces” was softened with a statement that it would do so “by the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers,” and his closing promise to recreate the region “in the image of democracy” had the words “God and” shoehorned in.
- The speech’s ominous penultimate line, “We will make the action of the past few months look petty,” was cut, replaced with the final statement “For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”
You can see every edit that was made to Lewis’ original draft in its original context here.