Rep. John Lewis, the only surviving speaker from the original 1963 March on Washington, gave a rousing and emotional speech on at Wednesday’s “Let Freedom Ring” commemorative event, acknowledging how far America has come since that first march, but also emphasizing that the struggle to achieve the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still continues.
“This moment in our history has been a long time coming, but a change has come,” he said, referencing Otis Redding’s song, “A Change is Gonna Come.”
“Sometimes I hear people saying, ‘Nothing has changed,’” Lewis said. “But for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton field of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress, makes me want to tell them, ‘Come and walk in my shoes.’”
Lewis recalled his first trip to Washington in 1961, as a Freedom Rider fighting to desegregate buses, and his return in 1963 as the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, when he fought for voting rights. But, perhaps Lewis’ most touching account came while he talked about the spirit of the original March on Washington.
“People came that day, to that march, dressed like they were on their way to a religious service,” he said.
“Martin Luther King Jr. taught us the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence,” he continued. “He taught us to have the power to forgive, the capacity to be reconciled. He taught us to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to find a way to get in the way.”
Just as Rev. Al Sharpton did before him, Lewis made the point that the fight for progress must continue in order to honor all that’s been accomplished so far.
“Fifty years later, we can ride anywhere we want to ride, we can stay where we want to stay, those signs that said white and colored are gone, and you won’t see them anymore except in a museum, in a book, or on a video,” he said. “But there are still invisible signs, barriers in the hearts of human kind that form a gulf between us.”
He implored the crowd to be ready to stand up to oppose the battles of the modern day civil rights movement, including Stop-and-Frisk and “injustice in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida,” along with mass incarceration, immigration, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger, and “the renewed struggle for voting rights.”
“We must never ever give up, we must never ever give in, we must keep the faith, and keep our eyes on the prize,” he said.
Echoing the words of one of the original march’s first organizers, A. Philip Randolph, he capped off his remarks by reiterating the need for all Americans to come together in support of progress.
“We may have come here on different ships, but we all are in the same boat now. So it doesn’t matter whether we are black or white, Latinos, Asian-Americans, or Native Americans. Whether we are gay or straight, we are one people, we are one family, we all live in the same house, not just the American house, but the world house. And when we finally accept these truths, then we will be able to fulfill Dr. King’s Dream, to build a beloved community, a nation and a world at peace with itself.”
Watch Rep. Lewis’s remarks in their entirety below.