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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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BILL MOYERS: Those little girls were in Sunday school hearing the lesson on “the love that forgives.” And they died hearing that lesson. And you're saying those men who did it should be loved and forgiven?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Yes, they must be love. They must -- we must have the capacity, we must have the ability to forgive. Dr. King -- one joke he said, "We just have to love." He said, "We have to love the hell out of everybody. Just love. It's a better way." On one occasion he said something like, "I made up my mind to love because hate is too heavy a burden to bear."

BILL MOYERS: So what does the March on Washington 50 years ago have to say to us today?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: The March on Washington 50 years ago is saying to us today that we can. We can as a nation and as a people come together for the common good and believe again that we can get things done for all America and not just for some.

BILL MOYERS: John Lewis, thank you very much for your time. And thank you, above all, for your work and your witness.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, thank you very much, Bill. Thank you, brother.

BILL MOYERS: You may find it hard to believe that the same John Lewis who speaks so gently today of “love and forgiveness” was described 50 years ago by "The New York Times" as “harshest of all the speakers” at the March on Washington. But the times were harsh, as those in the civil rights movement knew better than anyone. They would have been justified meeting the evils of racism with radical measures. How they achieved such a magnanimous spirit in the face of the ugly oppression of white supremacy, gross injustice, and reactionary politics is a story that both baffles and inspires.

I watched the people around me that day in 1963: students, trade unionists, teachers, laborers, letter carriers, even sharecroppers who rode the bus all night to come up from the blood-darkened depths of the South. The thing I remember most vividly is how seriously they listened. They heard what John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the others were saying – that America had failed its great promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens.

Like their forebears they were used to seeing the future of which they dreamed always deferred, put off again and again. Now, they came that hot Wednesday in August to make demands and celebrate their solidarity. They sought freedom – the same freedom from want and fear that white people want – and they wanted jobs, a living wage, without which freedom is but the rich man’s preserve.

We remember Dr. King’s soaring dream of an interracial future, but we too often forget that the bush must burn before hope is born, that there is a trial of pain before change can come. The March reached the peak of the mountain that day, but the marchers were soon back below on the flatlands where the long, long struggle for justice continued to meet ferocious resistance.

We keep backsliding on the promise; keep forgetting that the marchers were claiming it for every American, of every color and faith. But for a few hours that day, we could imagine what this country might yet become…

SINGING CROWD: Freedom. Freedom. Freedom, freedom, freedom.

BILL MOYERS: At our website,, we invite you to share your own memories and photos of the 1963 March on Washington. And we’ve brought together a group of activists and scholars to think about its impact and ask whether after all these years the demands of those who marched have been met.

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