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Last Word: Rep. John Lewis and the March on Washington

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(The following is an interview from the July-August 2013 edition of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

John Lewis, then leader of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, rises to speak at the March on Washington in 1963. Detail ©Bob Adelman, Prints and Photographs Division.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) discusses his memories of the March on Washington and its legacy.

You were one of the leaders of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Aug. 28, 1963. Tell us about some of your experiences that day.

On the morning of the march, I traveled with the other speakers to Capitol Hill and met with Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate. We met with the chairman and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. Then, we traveled to the Senate and also met with the majority and minority leaders. We discussed the need for strong civil rights legislation from the Congress.

After we left Capitol Hill, our plan was to link hands and lead the marchers from Capitol Hill down Constitution Avenue to the Washington Monument. We thought there might be a few thousand people, but in the end there were over 250,000. When we came out to the street, I looked towards Union Station and saw a sea of humanity marching. I said to myself, there goes our people, let me catch up to them. We linked arms and started marching with the crowd. They literally pushed us down the street, toward the memorial and onto the stage.

That day, I spoke sixth and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke last. His speech was amazing. He turned the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a modern- day pulpit. We did not have a sense of the magnitude of that day, at the time, but he knew—and we knew—he had made an impact. After the speeches were over, people were still coming to the National Mall from all over America. We were invited to the White House by President Kennedy. He met us at the door of the Oval Office and he was standing there almost like a beaming father. He shook hands with each speaker and said to each one, “You did a good job.” And when he got to Dr. King he said, “And you had a dream.”

Your book “Across That Bridge” shares life lessons for those committed to bringing about social change. What are some of those lessons?

The movement taught me to have faith, to never give up, to always love and to not become bitter or hateful. Most importantly, it taught me to pace myself for the long haul. The struggle for equality will not last a week or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime.

Your soon-to-be published book, “March,” is in the form of a graphic novel. Why did you choose to use this format to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement?

The format was chosen to reach more young people and children, so they can know the history and meaning of the Civil Rights Movement. It is an attempt to bring the movement alive through drawings and words.

Do you believe President Obama’s election is the realization of Dr. King’s dream?

The election of President Obama is a significant step towards making Dr. King’s dream become a reality, but it is not the true fulfillment or realization of his dream. It is only a down payment on King’s dream of building a “Beloved Community”—a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being. We have come a long way, down a very long road toward accomplishing this ideal, but we are not there yet. We still have a great distance to go before we realize the true meaning of Dr. King’s dream.

Civil rights leader John Lewis is the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district. Rep. Lewis is the author of “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of a Movement,” “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change” and “March,” a graphic novel about the Civil Rights Movement. 

Listen to Rep. John Liews at the 2004 and 2012 National Book Festivals.

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