Fifty years ago, he was an angry young man. As the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, he had watched thousands of young people get beaten and jailed for demanding equal rights. His mentor, Martin Luther King, begged him not to advocate violence. On August 28, 1963, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. On that day, at the age of 23, he stood up in front of a quarter-million people and said this:
“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. And then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace…I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution…We will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: “Wake up America! Wake up!” For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”
50 years has passed. This week he returned to the same spot and spoke again, a much older but still determined man. And this time he came as a U.S. Congressman from Georgia’s 5th district representing the city of Atlanta. He wasn’t the oldest speaker – that honor went to Bill Russell at 79 years old – but he was certainly the most noteworthy. His message was wedged in between those of two MLK family members and three US Presidents.
His name is John Lewis. History will remember him as the only person to speak at both the 1963 and 2013 events. And just what has he learned in over 50 years of struggle? What was his message this week?
“So I say to each of us today, we must never, ever give up. We must never give in. We must keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize. We did go to jail, but we got the Civil Rights Act. We got the Voting Rights Act. We got the Fair Housing Act. But we must continue to push. We must continue to work…we may have come here on different ships, but we all are in the same boat now. So it doesn’t matter whether black or white, Latino, Asian- American or Native American, whether we are gay or straight — we are one people, we are one family, we are all living 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.”