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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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They were committed to the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. And so many of these people came from the religious community. They came out of churches. They came from synagogues. They came from temples. They were people of faith. And they believed to have a rabbi, a minister, and other people that represented the essence of the social gospel. I knew it was going to be all right.

BILL MOYERS: But you know, the city was tense. I drove in every morning, commuted from Virginia. Usually the traffic is bumper to bumper, stop and start-- creeping slowly along. But I sailed in that morning because 2/3 of the people working in the District stayed home out of fear of the violence that had been talked about.

And as you probably remember 15,000 paratroopers were called up on the ready. Police leaves were canceled, including for the suburban police. All liquor sales were banned in the city. They even stopped the Major League baseball game from being played that afternoon.

And the police, I don't know if you ever knew this. The police were so nervous that they rigged your sound system in case they had to take it over when violence erupted. So, you may have been calm, but there was a fear in the heart of the city that things were going to go badly.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I didn't think there was going to be any violence or any disorder. It was the spirit. It was the spirit that engulfed the leadership and engulfed the participant. So many other people came like they were on their way to a religious service. It was like, almost like a camp meeting. And a lot of the people dressed like they were going to church.

It was almost spiritual to hear Mahalia Jackson stand and sing “How We Got Over.” And the place in a strange sense, started rocking. So somehow and some way, it had been instilled in the very being of the participant that we must follow the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence.

BILL MOYERS: There are people everywhere as far as the eye can see, extending in a mile. And there's music, Odetta, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Peter, Paul and Mary.

Celebrities, Jackie Robinson, Paul Newman, Josephine Baker, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Charlton Heston, Sammy Davis Jr., Marlon Brando. The celebrities were everywhere. But what seemed to have gripped you as you spoke, and as you've written and talked about, in a sense, was those thousands upon thousands of nameless, ordinary people who were out there.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: It was unreal, unbelievable. When I got up to speak, I can see the people, the young people. I can see those middle aged and older people. I can see some members of Congress down near the foot of the podium. It was a sea of humanity.

BILL MOYERS: Were you intimidated? You were only 23. You had only been head of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, for what, a few weeks?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Only a few weeks. And my first responsibility was to travel to Washington. We had a meeting with President Kennedy in the Oval Office of the White House. And we told him we were going to march on Washington.

You know, President Kennedy didn't like the idea of hundreds and thousands of people coming to Washington. And he said to Mr. Randolph, who was our spokesperson, "If you bring these, all these people to Washington, won't there be violence and chaos and disorder? And we will never get a civil rights bill through the Congress."

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