Remembering John LewisRoundup
tags: Congress, civil rights, voting rights, John Lewis
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.
In a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement has succeeded in bringing longstanding police abuses to public attention, Lewis’s legacy has never been more visible. What has not, unfortunately, gotten the attention it deserves is the political vision accompanying Lewis’s activism. That political vision is, however, very much present in his writing, particularly in the speech he sought to make at the 1963 March on Washington but never got to deliver as he intended.
Lewis did not get the chance because Archbishop Patrick J. O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., found that Lewis’s text was too radical and threatened to withdraw from the march program unless Lewis modified his text. O’Boyle won the day, but a half century later, one cannot help but wish that Lewis, under pressure from the senior march organizers to heed O’Boyle and be a team player, had given the speech he originally wrote.
Lewis’s original speech was one the country needed to hear as an accompaniment to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Read today, Lewis’s text is still prescient. He set the tone early on when he complained of the shortcomings of the civil rights legislation the Kennedy administration was proposing. “In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late,” Lewis declared. “There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.”
The changes the country required could not be limited to incremental ones, Lewis argued. “We are now involved in a serious revolution,” he contended. What particularly worried him was that neither Democrats nor Republicans were thoroughly committed to fundamental racial change: “We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.”
Those who counseled patience had no sense of what Black Americans were enduring, said Lewis. Patience is a “dirty and nasty word,” he declared. “We want our freedom, and we want it now,” he insisted. The corollary to this argument for rapid change was that the civil rights movement needed to mobilize its supporters on a large scale and take matters into its own hands. “We all recognize,” he wrote, “the fact that if any radical social, political, and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.” In other words, the civil rights movement needed to commit itself to more direct action once it gained sufficient strength.
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