Politics

6 John Lewis speeches key to understanding his work and legacy

John Lewis, who was born and raised in the Alabama Black Belt and served as a congressman from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for almost 30 years, was an icon of the American civil rights movement. Through his involvement in pivotal fights for racial equality, from the Selma voting rights campaign, to sit-ins in Nashville, to the March on Washington, and the Freedom Rides, he came to embody both hope and the long struggle for freedom.

While Lewis is most known for his direct protests that actively countered racism and white supremacy, his speeches — from the March on Washington to the floor of the House of Representatives — also stand as markers of his courage and dedication.

Here are some of Lewis’s key speeches.

March on Washington (August 1963): “How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.”

As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and one of the “Big Six” organizers of the March on Washington (alongside civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Philip Randolph), John Lewis, then 23, was the youngest person to speak at the historic March on Washington; before his death on July 17, 2020, he was the last living speaker.

Lewis wrote his speech in rejection of the Kennedy administration’s Civil Rights Bill of 1963, which he said was “too little too late” and failed to protect Black people against police brutality, among other ills. In the first draft, Lewis accused the Kennedy administration of siding with white supremacists; he planned to ask, “Which side is the federal government on?”

But this first draft of the speech was deemed too radical by the march’s other organizers. Lewis was also asked to remove a section in which he pledged to “burn Jim Crow to the ground” and “fragment the South into a thousand pieces,” reworking the speech to read, “We will march through the South (…) with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity we have shown here today.”

Lewis’s speech called for immediate freedom over gradual freedom: “To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient,” he told the crowd. “We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again.”

It also drew attention to the thousands of people who couldn’t attend the march because they were receiving “starvation wages or no wages at all.”

In 2018, Lewis reflected on his experience delivering the speech. He recalled that when he looked to his right he could see “hundreds and hundreds of young people who had been involved during the early days” and, when he looked ahead, he could see a “sea of humanity.” To his left he saw “young black men and young white men in the trees trying to get a better view.” At that moment, he said, he said to himself, “This is it.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law less than a year after the march.

Democratic National Convention (1988): “We are the party of inclusion”

During Lewis’s first term as a member of Congress, Atlanta was named the host city of the 1988 Democratic National Convention. It was Atlanta’s big moment in the political spotlight, and Lewis seized on the opportunity to call for unity inside and outside the Democratic Party.

He delivered a speech on the final night of the convention that called for the election of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. Lewis urged Democrats to return to their respective cities to build coalitions that speak to the needs of those who “have been left out and left behind.”

The remarks underscored Lewis’s position as a pioneering leader in the Democratic Party who would continue to fight for the most marginalized: “We have come a great distance since the 1960s,” he said in his remarks, which begin at 3:45 in the video above. “When we look across this convention hall it is self-evident that we are the party of inclusion. We are an iteration democracy. One people. One nation. One family, the American family.”

Defense of Marriage Act congressional debates (1996): “You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love”

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which prohibited the federal recognition of same-sex marriages for benefits like Social Security, insurance, and tax filing. The law defined marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” In debate over the legislation, Lewis argued against this definition, saying, “You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love.” The Supreme Court would later rule in 2013 that DOMA was unconstitutional.

Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., Lewis proclaimed, “Why don’t you want your fellow Americans to be happy? Why do you attack them? Why do you want to destroy the love they hold in their hearts? Why do you want to crush their hopes, their dreams (…)?”

MLK Memorial dedication (October 2006): “It is better to reconcile and not divide”

Lewis delivered a speech to celebrate the groundbreaking at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial the first monument on the National Mall in Washington, DC, to honor the contributions of a Black American.

In his remarks, Lewis called King “one of the founding fathers of modern America.” He spoke about the first time he met King, the moment that inspired him to dedicate his life to the fight for civil rights:

“I will never forget the first time I met him,” Lewis said. “I was 15 years old and in the 10th grade in 1955, growing up on a farm outside Troy, Alabama, when I heard the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was talking about the ability of a disciplined and determined people to make a difference in our society.”

Lewis said he hoped the monument to King served as a reminder that love prevails over hate and that “it is better to reconcile and not divide, it is better to build and not tear down” — and he emphasized that King’s dream had not yet been realized.

Selma 50th anniversary march (March 2015): “Get out there and push and pull, until we redeem the soul of America”

On the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Lewis stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to remember the day he almost lost his life.

On March 7, 1965, Lewis, then 25, led more than 600 marchers across the bridge in Selma, Alabama, in an attempt to walk 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery to reach Alabama Gov. George Wallace and demand voting rights. But at the end of the bridge, state troopers, some mounted on horseback, tear gassed the marchers and used clubs and whips to violently beat them.

“A few innocent children of God, some carrying only a bedroll, a few clutching a simple bag, a plain purse or a backpack, were inspired to walk 50 dangerous miles from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state of Alabama,” Lewis said. “On that day, on that day, 600 people marched into history, walking two by two down this sidewalk, not interfering with the free flow of trade and commerce, not interfering with traffic, with a kind of military discipline.”

In recalling the events, 50 years later, Lewis made it clear that he returned to Selma to be renewed, reminded, and inspired — because there is so much more to do.

“We must use this moment to recommit ourselves to do all we can to finish the work. There is still work left to be done. Get out there and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America,” he said.

In February 2020, Lewis, after being diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, would visit Selma once more to call the country to action. “We must keep the faith, keep our eyes on the prize,” Lewis said. “We must go out and vote like we never ever voted before. Some people gave more than a little blood. Some gave their very lives.”

Impeachment hearings and vote (2019): “Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’”

Lewis was a leading voice calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. In a rousing speech on the House floor on September 24, 2019, Lewis proclaimed that delaying the impeachment of Trump was a serious affront to democracy.

“Every turn this administration demonstrates disdain and disregard for the law and for the constitution. They have lied under oath. They refuse to account for their action and appear before the legislative body who have the constitutional right to inquire about their activities,” Lewis said in his speech.

Trump was officially impeached in the House in December 2019 .

When the House ultimately voted to impeach, Lewis’s speech exemplified why he was sometimes called the “conscience of Congress.” He said, When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. … Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”

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