John Lewis’ militant speech at the March on Washington

John Lewis speaks at the March on Washington.

John Lewis, then the 23-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, better known as SNCC, delivered a speech at the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington that at the time drew almost as much attention as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.” 

At Lewis’ funeral, Bill Clinton arrogantly exalted Lewis over his successor at SNCC, Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, saying: “There were two or three years there where the movement went a little bit too far towards Stokely. But in the end, John Lewis prevailed.” 

Today, as Black activists and allies try to clear the wreckage of the Clintons’ neo-liberalism that appears to love Black culture but hate Black people, here is the speech John Lewis delivered that day. 

Instead of taking Bill Clinton’s word for who John Lewis was, listen to Lewis’ own words at the March on Washington. In summary, he said: “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until a revolution is complete.” 

Rep. John Lewis Speech at The March on Washington (AUGUST 28, 1963)

“They’re talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop. 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." — Rep. John LewisThank you for everything. Rest In Power.

Posted by All On The Line on Friday, July 17, 2020
John Lewis, 23-year-old head of SNCC, delivers his speech at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. He and two SNCC comrades sat on boxes with a portable typewriter behind the Lincoln Memorial to “tone it down” until the literal last minute before Lewis’ turn at the mic. Still, it was universally recognized as the most militant speech of the day.

His appeal is just as timely in Black August of 2020 as it was when he made it 57 years ago. – Introduction by Mary Ratcliff

This is Danny Glover reading the original text of the SNCC speech that John Lewis planned to give at the March on Washington, recorded, with an introduction by Howard Zinn, at Voices of a People’s History of the United States on Oct. 5, 2005, in Los Angeles.

The speech John Lewis delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 1963

“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all. While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi who are out in the fields working for less than three dollars per day, 12 hours a day. While we stand here, there are students in jail on trumped-up charges. Our brother James Farmer, along with many others, is also in jail.

“We come here today with a great sense of misgiving. It is true that we support the administration’s Civil Rights Bill. We support it with great reservation, however. Unless Title III is put in this bill, there’s nothing to protect the young children and old women who must face police dogs and fire hoses in the South while they engage in peaceful demonstration.

“In its present form, this bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear of a police state. It will not protect the hundreds and thousands of people that have been arrested on trumped up charges. What about the three young men, SNCC field secretaries in Americus, Georgia, who face the death penalty for engaging in peaceful protest?

“As it stands now, the voting section of this bill will not help the thousands of people who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama and Georgia who are unqualified to vote for lack of a sixth grade education. ‘One man, one vote’ is the African cry. It is ours too. It must be ours.

“We must have legislation that will protect the Mississippi sharecroppers, who have been forced to leave their homes because they dared to exercise their right to register to vote. We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation. We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns five dollars a week in the home of a family whose total income is $100,000 a year. We must have a good FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission] bill.

“My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, politicians who build their career on immoral compromise and allow themselves an open forum of political, economic and social exploitation dominate American politics.

“There are exceptions, of course. We salute those. But what political leader can stand up and say, ‘My party is a party of principles’? For the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. 

“Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham? Where is the political party that will protect the citizens of Albany, Georgia?

“Do you know that in Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted, not by the Dixiecrats but by the federal government for peaceful protest? But what did the federal government do when Albany deputy sheriff beat attorney C.B. King and left him half dead? What did the federal government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King and she lost her baby?

“We want our freedom and we want it now.”

“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now.

“We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.

“We do not want to go to jail, but we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood and true peace. I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until a revolution is complete. 

“We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution. In the Delta of Mississippi, in Southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation the Black masses are on a march for jobs and freedom.

“They’re talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond will not stop this revolution. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our march into 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 send a desegregated South into a thousand pieces, 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.”

Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff can be reached at editor@sfbayview.com or 415-671-0789.