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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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JOHN LEWIS IN 1963: If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.

By the forces of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say, "Wake up America! Wake up!" for we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.

BILL MOYERS: But the real work was ahead, wasn't it?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: But I knew, as Dr. King said in his speech, we had to go back to the South. We had to go, we had to leave the mountaintop. And being in Washington, being on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was a great feeling. To be standing there in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln. But we have to go back into the heart of Alabama, back to Georgia, back to Mississippi and back to other parts of America and to make real the hopes and dreams of a people.

BILL MOYERS: But when you did that in the preceding years, you got your head bashed in.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, that was part of the price we had to pay in order to make it real, make it plain, make it simple. Daddy King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s father used to say to him over and over again, "Make it plain, son. Make it plain." By marching to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we were trying to make it plain. Not just to politicians, but to the American people.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I said to some of my staff, I said it to the people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I said it to Dr. King and the people at SCLC from time to time. We have to pace ourselves because our struggle is not a struggle that lasts for one day, or one week, or one month, or one year, or one lifetime. It's an ongoing struggle.

I said it to some of my colleagues in the Congress. We must take the long hard look, but also believe in a sense of urgency. When people are hurting, when people are suffering, you must be ready to move. You must be ready to act.

And how long can people suffer? How long can people starve? And if we make a decision between children and military might? Or make a decision between more bombs, more missiles, more guns, and mothers and children, the poor, the elderly? You cannot be patient. You cannot wait.

BILL MOYERS: Do you remember what Martin Luther King said to you after the speech?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I remember Dr. King saying, "Good job, John, good job."

BILL MOYERS: And then he went on to follow you shortly with that famous "I Have a Dream" speech. How did it strike you hearing it that day?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: When Martin Luther King Jr. stood up and started speaking, and later as he continued to speak, and he got to that point where he said, "I have a dream today, a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream," I looked at him, I’ve heard him speak so many times, and I knew then that he knew that he was getting over to the American people, and that he was preaching a great sermon. And that's what he did.

 
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