Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

The March on Washington Speech

BOND: You mentioned A. Philip Randolph, so I want to talk about a moment -- or you to talk about a moment -- when A. Philip Randolph convinces you to change the remarks you had planned to say at the March on Washington. You had planned to say things that the Kennedy administration didn't want said, and Mr. Randolph intervened and asked if you would change. Describe that to us.

LEWIS: Well, as you well know, during those days leading up to the March on Washington, we all had to prepare a speech. And we had a speech like all the other leaders. The night before the March on Washington I had been informed by Bayard Rustin, or Bay'd (ph.) Rustin, who was the deputy director of the March -- really, assistant to A. Philip Randolph, who said that some people had some problem with my speech, the text of the speech, and there was a meeting in a room of this hotel, and you ought to come down and see what we could do. And there was things that people didn't like in the speech.

BOND: Who was in the meeting?

LEWIS: Well, there was a representative from NAACP, the Urban League, UAW. I think Walter Reuther himself was there. Eugene Carson Blake, from the National Council of Churches. Someone was representing the American Jewish Congress, the American Catholic Conference, because there was ten conveners of the March on Washington, and I think Walter Fauntroy could've been in the meeting for Dr. King and SCLC. And there was part of the speech where I said, "in good conscience, we could not support the administration's proposed civil rights bill for it was too little and too late." And it went on down and said there's not anything in the bill to protect old women and young children involved in peaceful non-violent demonstrations, stuff like that. And then another part of the speech, I said, "The party of Kennedy is the party of Eastland, the party of Rockefeller, the party of Javits, is the party of Goldwater. Where's our party?" And then I said, "Listen, Mr. President, listen, members of Congress, you want to take the revolution out of the streets and put it in our courts," and then went on down and said, "The masses are restless and we would create our own party," but then at the latter part of the speech, near the end of the speech, was a play on words. Some people called it rhetoric.

I said, "if we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day may come when we will not confine our marching on Washington, but we may be forced to march to the south the way Sherman did non-violently." And people thought that was inflammatory. But even before I got to that point, at one part of the speech where I said, "The black masses are restless. We've involved in a serious revolution." There were people who objected to the use of the phrase "black masses." And use of the word "revolution."

A. Philip Randolph came to my rescue. And he said, in his baritone voice, "There's nothing wrong with the use of black masses. I use it myself sometime. There's nothing wrong with the use of the word revolution. I use it myself sometime." But they wanted me to change the phrase related to Sherman. So for the most part, we made those other changes, but we keep the reference to Sherman there. And we got to the March the next day -- just before the March was supposed to get underway, the program. I believe you had made a copy of this.

BOND: Yes, I have a copy of the original speech.

LEWIS: The speech available to the press. And people saw it and other people saw it and the people convening the March, they've seen it, and they were still having problems and A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jim Forman -- our Jim Forman, Executive Secretary of SNCC -- and, I think, Courtland Cox and others, we gathered to the side of Lincoln. I guess that would've been the right side of the statute of Mr. Lincoln. And Forman had a portable typewriter and Mr. Randolph said, "John, we've come this far. Let's stay together for the sake of staying together. For the sake of unity, can we change these words? Can we delete it?" And so we dropped the reference to Mr. Sherman and sort of said, "if we do not see meaningful progress here today, we will march through certain cities."

BOND: That was it. Was that a tough decision for you?

LEWIS: It was tough and at the time I had a sort of a sense of righteous indignation but I got over it.

BOND: It was hard to say no to Mr. Randolph.

LEWIS: It was very hard.