This past Sunday, PBS held a preview screening of the documentary THE MARCH at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. THE MARCH is directed by John Akomfrah. It has its television premiere tonight, August 27 at 9 PM ET/8C on PBS.
The panel for the preview was comprised of four people who were involved with organizing the 1963 March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial: Julian Bond (appears in THE MARCH) who was Communications Director for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and is currently Chairman Emeritus of the NAACP; Courtland Cox who represented SNCC on the March on Washington at its New York headquarters under Bayard Rustin‘s direction and played a key role in the story shared below re John Lewis’ speech; Norman Hill (appears in THE MARCH) who was National Program Director of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) who wrote the initial draft of the plan for the March on Washington and was a key field organizer for the March; and Joyce Ladner (appears in THE MARCH), who was field secretary for SNCC and staff of the March on Washington, working with Bayard Rustin. The panel was moderated by Jennifer Lawson of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
These were the young souls of 1963 determined, passionate and committed to get in the front of the line of the march (from all sides) as they had been on the front lines and firing lines of lunch counters, buses, voter registration drives, and demonstations throughout the South. The March was the event that created a dramatic “salt and pepper” effect for the movement regionally, ethnically and racially. And many haven’t stopped “marching.”
Before the film, the audience was alerted that the version of THE MARCH they were about to see did not include the footage or audio of Martin Luther King’s delivering what is known as his “I Have a Dream Speech.” This would’ve cost the filmmakers and their funders a significant amount of additional monies to secure rights for a single free public preview screening. The King segment will be included in tonight’s PBS broadcast.
Persons who’ve been down this road before are all too familiar with what can become a legally and financially prohibitive process to access anyof King’s intellectual and material properties. The packaging of Dr. Martin Luther King and the 1963 March into a single speech has, in the opinon of the actual witnesses, been a disservice to the impact of the March and even Dr. King’s legacy. And perhaps the estate may want to assess the strength of the legacy and review its current policies around permissions and rights. As I’m photocopying documents at a local office supply store, another customer is talking with a salesperson saying he had no idea there was a 50th Anniversary March event happening in Washington over the weekend, adding “my grand daughter didn’t know who Martin Luther King, Jr was” followed by a light chuckle.
While these audio, video, intellectual, image rights issues are being debated, argued, sorted out etc, I say, it’s time to focus on other speeches from the 1963 March. Josephine Baker delivered a testimonial of her expatriate’s journey wearing her French Resistance uniform (I’m sure James Baldwin could relate). The 1963 March, as was reiterated at the Sunday event, answered the question, “What does the Negro want?” John Lewis, today’s Congressman from Georgia (D-Ga) and then the 23-year-old SNCC chair answers with specifics. He says “Black” instead of “Negro.” So what? The “so what” is it was 1963. “Black” wasn’t the P word (read “power”) it became after Martin Luther King’s tragic assasination in 1968 or James Brown’s proclamation released in black vinyl 4 months later. “Black” is in John’s speech, before the cameras turned onto Stokley Carmichael. This is signficant.
What is also significant is that there are two speeches. The one John Lewis wrote, and the one the SNCC leader delivered at the 1963 March. The original speech goes even further than just the word “Black” or “What does the Negro want?” It asks “Why?” and answers “What will happen if it’s not delivered.”
At an event in 1963 that had more federal and local security measures in place than a post 9-11 terrorism orange alert, John’s speech made the rounds of the March’s leadership and at the 11th hour was edited under much political pressure to take the edge off. But “Black” stayed in the speech with the elders’ approval. It signals a shift. More about this story is included in John Lewis’ memoir of his civil rights story, Walking with the Wind, written with Michael D’Orso and published in 1998 by Simon & Schuster.
I suggest reading the original speech below with the video.
The speech is significant for this event. And still relevant. (clip from BillMoyers.com)
Rep. John Lewis’ Speech at the 1963 March on Washington from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.
From Walking With the Wind, John Lewis and Michael D’Orso. Simon & Schuster, 1998
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 wholeheartedly 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: This bill will not protect the citizens in Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear in a police state. This bill will not protect the hundreds of people who have been arrested on trumped up charges. What about the three young men in Americus, Georgia, who face the death penalty for engaging in peaceful protest?
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 sixth-grade education. “ONE MAN, ONE VOTE” is the African cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours.
People have been forced to leave their homes because they dared to exercise their right to register to vote. What is there in this bill to ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year?
For the first time in one hundred years this nation is being awakened to the fact that segregation is evil and that it must be destroyed in all forms. Your presence today proves that you have been aroused to the point of action.
We are now involved in a serious revolution. This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises 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 sunup to sundown 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 nonviolent 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 of 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 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 people.
The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it into 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.
All of us must get in the revolution. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and every hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution is complete. In the Delta of Mississippi, in southwest Georgia, in Alabama, Harlem, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation, the black masses are on the march!
We won’t stop now. All of the forces of Eastland, Bamett, 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!
DISCLOSURE: The author of this post organized the preview screening of THE MARCH mentioned above…and learned a lot from the particpants!