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(1963) John Lewis, “We Must Free Ourselves”

John Lewis, 23, Speaks at March on Washington, 1963
(Am Legacy, Fall '03)
Image Ownership: Public Domain
John Lewis, then the 23-year-old Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was asked to speak at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.  When A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders saw the draft of his speech which was critical of both the U.S. government and the tactics of older civil rights leaders,  they insisted that he modify his speech to make it less confrontational.  The infighting between Lewis and his supporters and the leaders of the March continued until the final moments before the SNCC leader arrived at the rostrum and gave a version more comfortable to his critics.  The original unedited version of Lewis’s draft, not the speech he actually delivered,  appears below.  

We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of.  For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here.  They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages … or no wages, at all.

In good conscience, we cannot support the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little, and too late.  There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.

This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, [for] engaging in peaceful demonstrations …

The voting section of this bill will not help thousands of black citizens who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama, and Georgia, who are qualified to vote, but lack a 6th Grade education.  “One man, one vote,” is the African cry.  It is ours, too.  (It must be ours.)

We are now involved in … revolution.  This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromise and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation.  What political leader here can stand up and say, “My party is the party of principles”?  The party of Kennedy is also the party of  Eastland.  The party of  Javits is also the party of Goldwater.   Where is our party?

In some parts of the South we work in the fields from sun up to sun down for $12 a week.  In Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted not by Dixiecrats but by the Federal Government for peaceful protest.  But what did the Federal Government do when Albany’s Deputy Sheriff  beat Attorney C.B. King and left him half dead?  What did the Federal Government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby?

It seems to me that the Albany indictment is part of a conspiracy on the part of the Federal Government and local politicians in the interest of expediency.

I want to know, which side is the Federal Government on?

The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.  The non-violent revolution is saying, “We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for hundreds of years.  We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside any national structure that could and would assure us a victory.”  To those who have said, “Be Patient and Wait,” we must say that, “Patience is a dirty and nasty word.”  We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now.  We cannot depend on any political party, for freedom, and we want it now.  We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.

We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political, and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about. In the struggle we must seek more than civil rights; we must work for the community of love, peace and true brotherhood.  Our minds, souls, and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all the people.

The revolution is a serious one.  Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the street and put it in the courts.  Listen, Mr. Kennedy, listen, Mr. congressman, listen fellow citizens, the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a “cooling-off” period.  

We won’t stop now.  All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond won’t stop this revolution.  The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington.  We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did.  We shall pursue our own “scorched earth” policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently.  We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.  We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I say to you, WAKE UP AMERICA.



Sources:

Josh Gottheimer, ed.,  Ripples of Hope, Great American Civil Rights Speeches (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003).
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