Chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
|At 23, John Lewis was the youngest and, many felt, the most radical speaker at the March on Washington. He had already gained some recognition as an influential figure in the civil rights movement as a Freedom Rider. He was arrested and beaten for his participation, and photos of his bloodied face brought national attention to the Riders’ efforts to desegregate public buses in the South.
Speaking at the March on Washington was one of Lewis’s first responsibilities as SNCC chairman. He arrived in Washington with a speech that was critical of the Kennedy Administration’s planned civil rights bill and threatened that black Americans would march through the South “the way Sherman did” until all Jim Crow laws were abolished.
A. Philip Randolph, who had attempted twice to organize a peaceful mass demonstration in the nation’s capitol, pleaded with Lewis to edit the speech to give a less militant impression to the administration and the audience. “John, we’ve come this far together,” Lewis later remembered him saying. “Let us stay together.” Lewis agreed to remove the more strongly worded portions of the draft, but his speech was still remembered as the most radical of the event. He took America’s political parties to task for failing to take a stand against racist policies, asking, “What political leader can stand up and say, ‘My party is a party of principles?’…Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?”
Watch previews of Bill Moyers’s interview with John Lewis premiering this weekend on Moyers & Company