EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series in which America's leaders reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The first leader interviewed for the series was Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil-rights icon. Following are edited excerpts from the interview.
Where were you and what were you doing on August 28, 1963?
On August 28, 1963, I was a speaker at the March on Washington. I was a young man, only 23 years old, and I had just been elected to chair the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC. I was a student leader, and my speech represented the sentiments of the [movement's] student activists.
All of the leaders of the so-called "Big Six" civil-rights organizations who attended the march stayed at the Capital Hilton on 16th Street—except Dr. King, who stayed at the Willard Hotel.
The morning of the march, we got up early and made a trip to Capitol Hill to meet with House and Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle. We met with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, House Minority Leader Charles Halleck, and Speaker Carl Albert, as well as the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary committees.
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All our meetings went well. We were expecting a crowd of maybe 50,000 people to attend the March on Washington, but by the time we finished our meetings on the Hill, the streets had begun to fill. People were flooding out of Union Station, moving toward the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial. To our surprise, the march had already begun.
Thousands of people were streaming in from every direction. We were the leaders of the march, but it seemed like the people were leading us. I said to myself, “There go my people.” We had to catch up to them. So we joined hands, and we walked from Capitol Hill down to the Lincoln Memorial—the people ushered us through.
Once we got there, I had some work to do. The night before, Bayard Rustin, [who partnered with] A. Philip Randolph in the logistic coordination of the march, had called a meeting to discuss my speech. Some people were concerned about words that I had used. With all the fire of youth, I called President Kennedy’s civil-rights bill "too little, too late." I also said something like, “You tell us to be patient, you tell us to wait, but 'patience' is a dirty, nasty word.”
Well, Archbishop [Patrick] O’Boyle, representing Catholic partnership in the march, took issue with that depiction because Catholics believed in the sanctity of patience. [But] I said that we wanted our freedom, and we wanted it now, and if we could not get it, we would “march through the South like Sherman did—nonviolently.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was like a big brother to me, and he said, “John, that doesn’t even sound like you.”
Randolph, an eloquent man and the hands-down dean of the movement, said, "John, we’ve come this far together, let’s stay together.”
So, in the time before the march started, me and several other members of SNCC positioned ourselves next to the feet of Abraham Lincoln and proceeded to change just a few words of the speech. Today, I am the only remaining speaker [at the march] who will see the King Memorial unveiled on the Mall.
What memories do you have of King’s assassination?
When Dr. King was assassinated, I was in Indianapolis working on the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy. We were knocking on doors and doing advance organizing for the speech Kennedy was to make that night. It was Kennedy’s first trip to Indianapolis, so we had planned a rally downtown in a black neighborhood.
About an hour before Kennedy was to speak, someone told me that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in Memphis. I knew Dr. King’s life had often been threatened. His home had been bombed, and he had even been stabbed in New York. I was concerned, but hopeful.
It was not until Bobby Kennedy mounted the stage and announced to the audience that King had been killed that I found out my brother, my leader, my friend, my colleague and my inspiration had died. People gasped. Some shouted out, “No!” Others dropped to their knees, broke down and wept. Kennedy spoke from his heart and made one of the most moving speeches I ever heard him make:
“For those of you who are ... tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act ... I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed.... But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.... But the vast majority of ... people in this country want to live together ... and want justice for all human beings.... Let us dedicate ourselves ... to tame the savageness of man and ... make gentle the life of this world."
People hung on every word, and despite the anger that exploded in cities throughout America after King’s death, there was no violence in Indianapolis. After the speech was over, we all went back to Kennedy’s hotel room and cried.
Has King—the man or the message—informed decisions in your career or personal life?
Without Martin Luther King Jr., I really do not know where I would be today.... Without his message, his activism and his sacrifice, I do not know where America would be today.
In the South, we lived in fear. Fear hung in the air like a knife always threatening to kill. It is hard to understand today, but when sitting next to someone on a public bus, looking a man or woman straight in the eye, when the simple act of registering to vote meant your life could be in danger, you can understand to a degree how we were afraid to be afraid.
Dr. King taught an entire generation of citizens—both black and white—how to stand up against oppression without compromising their own dignity. He taught us how to speak up and speak out, how to free our minds so completely that the chains of segregation could not bind us anymore.
I think about him almost everyday of my life. Whenever I have very tough decisions to make, I always think, "What would Martin do?" I also ask myself at times, "What would Bobby Kennedy do?" I accepted the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence that King espoused, not just as a tactic, but as a way of life. It is the chord that runs through my entire existence, as a member of Congress, as a leader, and as an everyday human being.
Is there a song that evokes King’s legacy, or the civil-rights movement?
More than anything, I would say, We Shall Overcome reflects the greatest testament to King’s legacy. It is a song that describes the overriding optimism that was the core of the struggle and King’s philosophy, the idea that, regardless of the difficulties we experience today on this inner journey as a nation to recognize the oneness of all humanity, we must know that it is all for the good. Ultimately, it is our divine destiny to rid ourselves of this blindness, and we shall overcome one day. That is the philosophical legacy of the movement and the meaning of Dr. King’s message.
Is King’s message relevant to any contemporary civil-rights or equality issues?
Dr. King’s message is more than simply relevant to the contemporary struggles of, not just civil rights, but human rights around the globe. Throughout my travels, I have student activists, archivists, historians, and government leaders tell me how the people organizing against oppression in conflicts all over the world use the history of [our] movement as a textbook for their struggle—[our movement] has influenced freedom movements in South Africa, India, Ireland, Serbia, Poland, Germany, and, most recently, in Egypt.
Egyptian activists [received] nonviolence training—modeled on our work in the movement—from organizers in Serbia. Apparently, a young woman and a member of the American Islamic Congress saw a comic book depicting the Montgomery Bus Boycott with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on the cover. ([It was] published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation.) She thought it could be a powerful tool in what would become the 2011 Egyptian revolt to remove Hosni Mubarak, and she had it translated into Arabic and distributed thousands of copies throughout Egypt before the uprising in Tahrir Square.
I had the pleasure of meeting her in my office, and she gave me a copy of that comic book. King’s message was more than a template for legislative change. As a minister, his words were moral arguments which can help guide the spiritual evolution of all humankind. His preaching and teaching is more than relevant in a contemporary context. Though he wrote those words 50 years ago, they still represent a vision of the future, of the truths we still must come to grips with to evolve as a society, as a community of nations and as individuals with our own divine destiny.
Interview conducted by Christopher Snow Hopkins.