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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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REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, I remember very well a note was put under my door from Bayard Rustin saying, "You need to come to a meeting. There's some concern about your speech, what you are proposing to say. And I attended the meeting. There were representatives from the different heads of the organization.

And some other people were there. And we had a very tense discussion about what I was saying and not saying. Near the end of the speech, more than anything else people were concerned about the end. But throughout, they sort of analyzed and said words and phrases. And I remember one line, I said, "You tell us to wait. You tell us to be patient. We cannot wait. We cannot be patient. We want our freedom and we want it now."

And Bayard Rustin said to me -- he was joking, just joking. He said, "John, you can't say you cannot be patient." Said the Catholic Church believed in being patient. He was just kidding me. But then, there was some people who said something like, "In the speech, you're saying revolution, black masses. What are you talking about?"

And A. Philip Randolph came to my rescue. He said, "There's nothing wrong with the use of the word black masses. I use it in myself sometimes. There's nothing wrong with the use of the word revolution. I use it in myself --" so, for the most part, we kept that in it.

But near the end of the speech, the original text, I said, "If we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day may come where we may not confine our marching on Washington, but we may be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did nonviolently." They said, "Oh, no. You can't go there." And that stayed in the speech until we got to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

And both A. Philip Randolph and Dr. King and Mr. Wilkins came to me. And at one point, I said to Roy Wilkins, I said "Mr. Wilkins this speech represent the young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and all of the people, indigenous people in Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi and all across the South." And he sort of walked away, sort of backed off.

Then, Mr. Randolph and Dr. King came back and said, Dr. King said, "John, this doesn't sound like you." And Mr. Randolph said something like, "We come this far together, John. Let's stay together." And I couldn't say no to A. Philip Randolph. I couldn't say no to Martin Luther King, Jr.

BILL MOYERS: So you agreed to some changes. You took out the words criticizing the President's bill as being too little, and too late. You took out the call to march through the Heart of Dixie the way Sherman did. You took out the question asking which side is the federal government on. You took out the reference to some political leaders as “cheap,” and you took them out, you're saying, because you were on the team, and because you honored A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King who said, "John, some of those words don't sound like you?"

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I did it. And as I look back and think about it 50 years later, I think it was the right thing to do. I have always tried to be a team player, and try not to violate any principles, or violate my philosophy.

BILL MOYERS: But were you angry at yourself at the time?

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