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Bill Moyers and Rep. John Lewis: 50 Years After the March on Washington, America Is a Long Way from True Equality

“To look out and see the best of America convinced me more than anything else that this is the product, this is the work of the movement,” Civil Rights Leader Lewis tells Moyers.

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He, in a good sense, he took advantage of the situation. He had the largest audience he ever had. He had been to Washington before, like in 1957, on May 17, 1957 and spoke on the steps. But this audience was different. It was larger. And I think he was inspired. I think he was inspired by God almighty. I think he had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history. And he responded.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. IN 1963: I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

BILL MOYERS: It was certainly apparent to those thousands upon thousands of people that he had somehow captured the immensity of the movement, and that he had delivered.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: You couldn't leave after hearing him speak and go back to business as usual. You had to do something, you had to act. You had to move. You had to go out and spread the good news.

BILL MOYERS: Some critics said after the "I Have a Dream" speech that it was candy-coated, and appeasement to white America. Too much optimism, too much love. Do you remember that? The criticisms of his speech?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: The criticism was uncalled for. Dr. King measured the moment. He measured the climate, the environment.

He was trying through his message to bring us all together as one people, as one family, as one house, the American house, the world house. And there was room. There was a place for all Americans. It was not just black Americans. White Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, women, men, everybody.

BILL MOYERS: But we have largely forgotten that in the beginning, his words were stinging as they spoke about reality.

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check […] It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation America has given the Negro people a bad check. A check which has come backed marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. BILL MOYERS: John Lewis, why has that part of his speech not joined the collective memory of the country?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I don't know. I really don't know. And it's so troublesome. I think that's one of the most brilliant and most powerful parts of that speech, really. I think sometimes we get caught up in the rhetoric. There's not anything wrong with rhetoric or poetry but that's the essence. That is the body. That is the soul of that speech, really.

This man’s life is not just civil rights or civil liberty, but he was concerned about hunger, poverty. And he died in Memphis trying to deal with the whole question of the wages. Economic conditions.

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