Bill Moyers and Rep. John Lewis: 50 Years After the March on Washington, America Is a Long Way from True Equality
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Mr. Randolph responded and said, in his baritone voice, "Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protest." We left that meeting, came out on the lawn of the White House, and said we had a meaningful and productive meeting with the President of the United State. And we told him we were going to march on Washington.
BILL MOYERS: Can you sum up what was going on in America at that time that led to the march that had people like John Kennedy worried and people like you adamant about what had to be done?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, the years leading up to the March on Washington had been unbelievable amount of action on the part of the movement. People had been sitting in lunch counters, standing in at theatres. People had been arrested and jailed by the hundreds and thousands.
People had been beaten. The signs that said, "White and colored." "White waiting." "Colored waiting." "White men." "Colored men. " "White women." "Colored women," they were still around. Medgar Evers had been assassinated in Mississippi in June of 1963.
Bull Connor, the police commissioner of the city of Birmingham had used dogs and fire hoses on children, women in the streets of Birmingham. Hundreds and thousand of young people, young children, had been arrested and jailed in the city of Birmingham. People couldn't register to vote simple because of the color of their skin. Back in 1961, '62, '63, people had to pass a so-called literacy test in my native state of Alabama. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. Another occasion, a man was asked to count the number of jellybeans in a jar.
BILL MOYERS: Before he would be allowed to register?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Register. And there was black doctors, lawyers, college professors, high school principals, maids, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, stood in unmovable lines all across the South. Were denied the right to participate simply because of the color of their skin.
BILL MOYERS: You lived a very frenetic schedule in the months leading up to the march. You were in all the hot spots, from Arkansas to Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina, but in your speech you made a reference to Danville, Virginia.
I remember your describing the authorities, the police in Danville breaking through the doors of a church in Danville in order to arrest the marchers, the protesters there. That was common, wasn't it they'd seek them out, wherever they were?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: It didn't matter whether it was a church, a community center. It was the harassment, intimidation. They wanted to stop people, to make it almost impossible for people to exercise their constitutional right. We had to continue to say to people, "You have a right to protest." Dr. King would say, "You have a right to protest for what is right in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent manner."
And many of the young people that came out of the deep South, out of Nashville, where we came under the influence of a man like Jim Lawson, we accepted nonviolence not simply as a technique or as a tactic, but as a way of life, as a way of living. We wanted to build what we called the beloved community, a community at peace with itself. In a sense where you forget about race and color and see people as people, as human beings. In SNCC, we started calling ourselves a circle of trust.
BILL MOYERS: A circle?