March on Washington: John Lewis' Speech - Then and Now

FILE - In his March 19, 2009 file photo, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is seen in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. On Wedn
FILE - In his March 19, 2009 file photo, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is seen in his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama named Lewis a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

"Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?" demanded an exasperated John Lewis.

It was 1963, and he stood before a crowd of 250,000 on the Lincoln Memorial for what was to prove to be one of the iconic events of the civil rights era: the March on Washington. However, his question could reasonably be asked again, in 2013, when Lewis would participate in commemorations for the event's 50th anniversary.

Poignantly, it occurs at an especially challenging time. The demands of the original march for 'Jobs and Freedom' remain pertinent and John Lewis could dust off his original speech and it would still sound fresh: black unemployment is double the wider community's, due to structural inequalities; and the Supreme Court recently struck down and, thereby, effectively dismantled a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. It was, according to Lewis, as if they had

"put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

Then, a passionate 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Lewis, was already a seasoned civil rights activist -- with fractures and scars as evidence -- and caused controversy when an advance copy of his speech was circulated. Denouncement from the Kennedy administration for its 'militant' tone resulted in two versions of Lewis's speech: the original one he proposed to give; and, the other, the one he actually delivered.

Apart from peppering his presentation with the word "revolution," Lewis had drawn ire primarily because he refused to support John F. Kennedy's civil rights bill for being "too little and too late."

The President was not universally trusted in the black community; indeed, Taylor Branch's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, was required reading to better understand the complexity of the era.

There was a perception that, having experienced defeat in 1956 for the vice-presidential nomination, Kennedy had positioned himself by "accommodating all factions" of the Democratic Party on civil rights. This, it was believed, left him "at best equivocating on the 1957 civil rights bill, (and) at worst pandering to his party's most extreme segregationist elements," wrote Branch.

Jackie Robinson was unequivocal in his distrust stating in a series of letters that he remembered,

"The votes that (then) Sen. Kennedy and some other Northern 'liberals' cast to send the 1957 Civil Rights Bill back to committee in a Southern-engineered attempt to kill any action by Congress to help Southern Negroes gain the equal voting rights promised to them by the Constitution."

But also galling was news which had leaked that Kennedy had enjoyed breakfast with Governor John Patterson of Alabama and Sam Englehardt, president of the Alabama White Citizens' Council. Patterson an avowed opponent of civil rights: banned the NAACP in Alabama; took legal action against boycotts; ordered expulsion of students who staged sit-ins; and refused to intervene when violence was meted out to Freedom Riders.

"I am wondering just what was said, by, and to, this same senator (Kennedy) behind closed doors at the Southern Governors' Conference that resulted in his emerging as the fair-haired boy of the Dixie politicians," wrote Robinson.

Nonetheless, although Kennedy won the closely contested presidential election in 1960, he hadn't achieved it unscathed. Indeed, his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, was initially thought to be more sympathetic on civil rights and had even been granted honorary membership of the NAACP. But, three years later, and seeking reelection, Kennedy objected to the march -- fearful that it would spark riots and, moreover, be construed as a referendum on the slow pace of civil rights legislation.

Patrick Cardinal O'Boyle, the first Catholic Archbishop of Washington, D.C., described as a "tough-minded Irishman," was 'recruited' to apply pressure on Lewis to revise his speech. O'Boyle was widely respected as a "social-worker priest" and champion of civil rights. When he arrived in Washington, for instance, he set about desegregating the city's parochial schools, years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education.

O'Boyle was enthusiastic about the march and had been scheduled to give the invocation. However, after becoming embroiled in Kennedy's furore, he threatened to withdraw, if the speech wasn't amended -- some said sanitized. Lewis, however, remained unmoved; it wasn't until the eleventh hour that he reluctantly relented - after two unsung heroes of the march intervened: Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. Kennedy's team remained nervous, though, and, apparently, two aids stood beside the speakers, ready to pull the plug, should Lewis renege.

John Lewis is the sole surviving member of the 'Big Six' civil rights leaders from the 'March on Washington' and personifies how much change has been made -- its momentum led to passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act; and how much remains to be done, in order for Martin Luther King's seminal, I Have a Dream, speech to be realized.

Barack Obama will address the 2013 March on Washington and although it was unimaginable in 1963 that the country would elect an African-American as president, it would be politically inexpedient for him to respond tepidly, as Kennedy had towards civil rights. And, inevitably, Obama's speech will draw comparisons to Dr King's.

Undoubtedly, there remains unfinished business in America over which people had "bled and died"; and, after half a century had elapsed, another March on Washington' was a necessary reminder and had been given a renewed impetus.