Tag Archives: john lewis

50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

28 Aug
Program for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

Program for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we celebrate by showcasing some of the documents, photos, and speeches from this event that was a highlight of the civil rights movement.

The line up of speakers and singers showcased great singers including Marian Anderson, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, The Freedom Singers, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez, but the music and singing often spilled out to the crowd as well. This clip complies all of the recorded performances from that day and gives the viewer a feeling for crowd’s participation as well.

The program lists Myrile Evers as speaking but in the end she did not speak. Daisy Bates, a civil rights activist who played a major role in the Little Rock School Integration crisis spoke, as did the famed singer and dancer, Josephine Baker.

Josepine Baker at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

Josepine Baker at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

John Lewis, one of the youngest speakers that day, was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and generated some controversy with his proposed speech. Lewis had circulated the text of his speech beforehand and was asked by some of the organizers of the speech to change the more militant sections. In his interview for Eyes on the Prize, Lewis talked about the speech and changed he made,

But I suggested that as a movement that we could not wait on the President on members of the Congress. We had to take matters into our own hand, and went on to say that, that the day might come when we would not confine our marching on Washington, where we might be forced to march through the south the way Sherman did, nonviolently. And some of the people suggested that was inflammatory, that would call people to riot, and you shouldn’t use that type of language. And Mr. Randolph really came to my defense…But even after we got, after we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, people had problems with some of the changes. The use of the word “revolution.” I used “revolution” in it, the word revolution in the speech, at least once, the word “masses.”

I said in, in one part of the speech, “We are involved in a serious revolution.” I remember that very well. “The revolution is at, is at hand. The masses are on the march” or something like that. People, they couldn’t deal with that. And it was, you know, it’s nothing. You look back on it, and, and in 1965, all of that, what we tried to suggest in that speech on the concern of voting rights, came to pass. The people in Selma, the people in Mississippi, made it real through the Voting Rights Act. And you know, all of the things that SNCC predicted and projected during that period came to pass in the Voter Rights Act 1965. And, but for that, you know, day, it was, tended to be looked upon as being radical and extreme.

Interview with John Lewis, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 14, 1979, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

The march culminated in Martin Luther King, Jr’s rousing and inspiring “I Have A Dream” speech. Reflecting the spontaneity of the day and the King’s skill as a speaker, the original text of the speech did not include the lines about the dream. King had done variations on that theme in previous speeches but had been told by his colleague Wyatt Tee Walker, and others, not to include it. In the moment though, when singer Mahalia Jackson called out for Martin to tell them about the dream. He did and spoke in soaring rhetoric and poetic terms that moved not only the people at the march but the radio and television audience that were broadcasting the speakers and proceedings of the march.

The speech was widely recognized as a masterpiece of rhetoric and was recently added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Drawing on numerous literary, biblical, and historical references, and using a repetition of lines that builds to an emotional high point, King’s words and delivery of the speech have a power that is still felt today.



The Voting Rights Act and “Eyes on the Prize”

28 Jun
John Lewis in "Eyes on the Prize"

John Lewis in “Eyes on the Prize”

This week the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act by ruling that Section 4 was no longer valid. Section 4 was originally created to eliminate the use of an arbitrary “test or device” that often took the form of a literacy test or a character reference required in order to register to vote.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Johnson after a long struggle on the part of civil rights activists to address this issue. President Johnson had previous signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He signed the second 1965 act because he felt the previous one did not resolve all voting rights problems in the Southern States.

Many interviewees in Eyes on the Prize were deeply involved in the struggle to gain voting rights for African Americans. Prior to the act registering to vote was a complicated, byzantine process involving literacy tests or having someone vouch for your character. In the end whether a person was able to register to vote or not was dependent on the whims and decisions of the individuals who were registering people in that area. The Voting Rights Act created federal oversight of elections administration across the country to prevent this unfair and arbitrary process.

Amelia Boynton Robinson and her husband became involved in helping people to register to vote in Selma, Alabama. In her interview she describes the hurdles African Americans had to overcome to register to vote,

During the time before the civil rights movement started, which was about thirty years, between twenty-five and thirty years, before the whole country became interested and registration and voting for the more downtrodden people, my husband and I decided that we were going to help people to register. At that time, they had two pages to fill out. And these two pages were questions that were pretty hard for the average person to fill out. And it was terribly hard for those who were illiterate. We had more illiteracy in this county than they had in most counties throughout the state, or in any other state, but we would teach them how to fill these blanks out. We could not do it by coming in the open and doing it, so we started with the people with whom we worked who were the rural people. My husband as a county agent, and I as a home demonstration agent would have meetings in the rural churches, and even in the homes…At that time, my husband was a registered voter and a voucher. Each person that came down to register had to have a voucher with him.

My husband was very, one of the very few people who was given the opportunity to bring people down there, and as he brought them down…that is he was supposed to tell that he knew these people. He knew where they lived, he knew their ages, or around their ages. He knew that they were, during their lifetime, they were people who had contributed, whatever they could to the, for the benefit of the city, or the county. And if he could tell all of that, saying that they were good Negroes, as it was said, that they would consider letting them become a registered voter. These people were known as vouchers…When he began to bring three and four people at a time, then the registrar became very much upset about [sic] and said, “You’re bringing too many people down here to register, why is it you’re bringing these people down here? We have been registering and voting for them all the time, now, you are doing the wrong thing by bringing these large numbers of black people to register and vote.” So he said, “They would like to be citizens.”

Interview with Amelia Boynton Robinson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 6, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Representative John Lewis, who was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was heavily involved in voting rights efforts. In his interview he describes being in Selma on what became known as “Freedom Day” in 1963,

We had made a commitment. We felt we had an obligation, and really a mandate to go to Selma where only about 2.1 percent of the black people of voting age were registered to vote. And on this particular day, hundreds of blacks lined up and stood at the county courthouse for most of the day and at the end of the day only about five people had made it in to take the so-called literacy tests. I can never forget that day. We met hostile law enforcement officials, Sheriff Clark and others stood there, and later some of us were arrested. But mostly elderly black men and women stood there all day in line and as several people from the outside observed–James Baldwin,  Professor Howard Zinn, a historian, and others–but it was the turning point for the right to vote.

I can never forget Selma. Selma…in my estimation one of the finest hours in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. The March on Washington we left the front line, we left the battlefield and went to Washington. We went to the seat of the national government to, to petition. But in Selma we had a response from the American people. People came there–the days after Bloody Sunday there was demonstration, nonviolent protest in more than 80 major cities in America. People didn’t like what they saw happening there. There was a sense that we had to do something, that we had to do it now. We literally, in my estimation, wrote the Voting Rights Act with our blood and with our feet, on the streets of Selma, Alabama and the Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery. See, we had been told by President Johnson a few months earlier, that it was impossible, it would just be impossible to get another Civil Rights Act, we had just signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Dr. King said, “We will write it.” And he literally brought the moral forces of to Selma and he used it to educate the American community and get a President and a Congress to say yes when they probably had the desire to say no.

Interview with John Lewis, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 5, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

15 Feb
Ella Baker

Ella Baker

Ella Baker was a civil rights activist who helped found and organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Her name is not as well-known as many of the other leaders of the civil rights movement but she played a pivotal role in many organizations and campaigns from the 1940s onward. Born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. Ella Baker had a long history of working as an organizer and activist before founding SNCC in 1960. She worked for the NAACP in the 1940s and then with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded in part by Martin Luther King, Jr. beginning in 1957. Then in the spring of 1960 a wave of student protests began, starting with a group of students who refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. Similar protests began occurring in Nashville, Tennessee led by students from local university’s including Fisk University.

Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961) was the third episode of  Eyes on the Prize and had a segment on these student protests. Many of the interviewees were organizers and members of SNCC including Diane Nash, Robert Moses and John Lewis. In her interview for Eyes on the Prize, Diane Nash talked specifically about Ella Baker, Baker’s importance for SNCC, and how she empowered the students to take the lead with the protests,

Ella Baker was very important to giving direction to the student movement at that particular point. And not giving direction in a way of her making decisions, as to what the students ought to do, but in terms of really seeing how important it was to recognize the fact that the students should set the, the goals and directions, and maintain control of the student movement. So, she was there in terms of offering rich experience of her own, and advice, and helping patch things up when they needed to be patched up. She was very important to me, personally, for several reasons. Number one, I was just beginning to learn, during that period of time, how everyone, particularly people who were older than we were, had other motives for their participation. Motives other than simply achieving freedom. There were people involved who worked with civil rights organizations who were very concerned about their organization’s image, and perpetuating their organization, who were concerned about fund-raising, and who would make decisions and take positions, based on those concerns, even at the expense, sometime, of actually gaining desegregation, such as the students were trying to do. And that was a very energy-draining thing for me, sometimes. And I didn’t—I remember a couple of times when things had happened that really bothered me, that I didn’t totally understand. I never had to worry about where Ella Baker was coming from. She was a very honest person, and she was—she would speak her mind honestly. She was a person that I turned to frequently who could emotionally pick me back up and dust me off. And she would say things, like, “Well, so-and-so is concerned about his fund-raising, maybe that’s why he took,”—and it would make things click, and fall into place, and she was just tremendously helpful, to me personally, and also to SNCC. I think she was constantly aware of the fact that the differences that the students had were probably not as important as the similarities that we had, in terms of what we were trying to do. So, very often, she was the person who was able to make us see, and work together. I think her participation as a person some years older than we, could really serve as a model of how older people can give energy and help to younger people, at the same time, not take over and tell them what to do, really strengthen them as individuals and also strengthen—she strengthened our organization.

Interview with Diane Nash, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 12, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Baker has been quoted as saying, “strong people don’t need strong leaders,” and SNCC’s philosophy was to empower both the students and the most oppressed members of the communities to decide what action they were going to take themselves, rather than rely on directives or orders from the leaders of the movement. Ella Baker was undoubtedly a leader and mentor to many people but her way of leading was to empower others to take action and direct their own campaigns and actions.

The complete collection of full length transcripts from Eyes on the Prize are available online.

More resources for Ella Baker can be found at the Ella Baker Center, and an oral history interview with Ella Baker, conducted by  former SNCC members Casey Hayden and Sue Thrasher, is available online in audio and transcript form at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s project, Documenting the American South.

John Lewis and “Life Lessons”

4 Jan
John Lewis in "Eyes on the Prize"
John Lewis in “Eyes on the Prize”

Representative John Lewis published a book last year, Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for ChangeThe book is a memoir which also offers advice to current activists including members of the Occupy Movement. Lewis became involved with the civil rights movement as a teenager after hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak on the radio at the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He went on to be one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and participated in many marches and protests.

Lewis was interviewed for both Eyes on the Prize I and II. In these extensive interviews he speaks about his upbringing in rural Alabama, how he became involved in the civil rights movement, his participation in the Nashville sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, and his meetings with Malcolm X.

In this quote from his interview in Eyes on the Prize I, Lewis spoke of his desire to become a minister as a young boy,

 We had a lot of chickens. And I grew up with this idea, somehow, I don’t know where it came from, I wanted to be a minister, and somehow I transferred my desire to be a minister and my responsibility of raising the chickens…and I literally started preaching to the chickens. They became members of this sort of invisible church…Later I tested some ideas on my younger brothers or sisters and first cousins and I remember my first act of maybe a nonviolent protest was when my parents would kill the chicken, that I would refuse to eat the chicken. And it went for two or three days–refusing to speak to my mother, father–because they killed a chicken, that I thought was so wrong.

Interview with John Lewis from Eyes on the Prize I

As a young man, Lewis was involved with almost every major moment in the movement, including the first sit-ins in Nashville, the Selma to Montgomery March where he was attacked by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, to speaking at the March on Washington, and participating in the Freedom Rides. Throughout it all and in the face of physical violence and intimidation, he maintained his philosophy of nonviolence. Speaking about his time as a student in Nashville, Lewis described how the first sit-ins occurred,

 So every Tuesday night for an entire semester in 1959 we had what we call, nonviolent workshop, direct action workshop, where we discussed and debated the theory, the philosophy of Gandhi, the teaching of Gandhi, the whole question of civil disobedience, the whole history of the struggle in India, and the attempt on the part of Gandhi to bring about some resolution of the problems in South Africa.

We went into the local stores, for the most part, the Five-and-Ten, Woolworth, Kreske’s, McClellan…we took our seats in a very orderly, peaceful fashion. The students were dressed like they were on the way to, to church or going to a big social affair. But they had their books, and we stayed there at the lunch counter studying and preparing our homework because we were denied service. The manager ordered that the lunch counters be closed, that the restaurants be closed, and we’d just sit there, and we continued to sit all day long. The first day nothing in term of violence or any disorder, nothing happened. This continued for a few more days and it continued day in and day out. And finally, on one Saturday when we had about 100 students prepare to go down, it was a very beautiful day in Nashville, very beautiful day, we got a call from a local white minister who had been a real supporter of the movement. He said that if we go down on this particular day he understand [sic] that the police would stand to the side and let a group of white hoodlums and thugs come in and beat people up, and then we would be arrested. And we should make a decision of whether we wanted to go or not and some people tried to discourage us from going on that particular Saturday. We made a decision to go, and we all went to the same store. It was Woolworth in downtown Nashville, in the heart of the downtown area, and occupied every seat at the lunch counter, every seat in the restaurant, and it did happen. A group of young white men came in and they start pulling and beating, primarily the young women, putting lighted cigarettes down their backs, in their hair and really beating people, and in a short time police officials came in and placed all of us under arrest, and not a single member of the white group–the people that were opposing our sit-in down at the lunch counter–were arrested. We all left out of that store singing “We Shall Overcome.” This was the first arrest in the Nashville sit-in. It was the first mass arrest, I think, anyplace in the South.

Interview with John Lewis from Eyes on the Prize I

Lewis’ interview from Eyes on the Prize II is also available online, along with the complete interviews from Eyes on the Prize I and II.