In 1963, John Lewis was 23 years old when he addressed a crowd of over 200,000 people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Lewis was already a veteran of the civil rights movement. He had been a devoted anti-segregation and voting rights activist in college and was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who dared to ride integrated buses into the segregated South. He had become the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Still ahead of him would be the events of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama; moments of great progress and painful setback; and 31 years serving as a U.S. Representative from Atlanta.
Lewis is now the only living person to have spoken at the March on Washington. Among his many honors, he has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Congressman Lewis tells the story of his life and struggle for civil rights in the award-winning graphic novel series “March.” Lewis says the book’s lesson is that we all have a moral obligation — when we see something that is not right, to do something about it.
In this talk, he joins his co-author Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell to discuss how the book speaks to a new generation.
Lewis spoke at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall on February 23. He was joined on the stage by UW President Ana Mari Cauce, UW Vice President for Minority Affairs Rickey Hall, moderator Craig Sims and musicians Courtney Jones and Nathan Nanfelt.
Listen to the full version below:
Transcript of Congressman John Lewis' speech:
Madam President, thank you for those kind words of introduction. Members of the Board of Regents, provosts, members of the student body, faculty members, and let me say to my friend, my brother, and my colleague, Dr. Jim McDermott, thank you for being here, Jim. Good to see you.
It is great to be at this university. I told the president that I'm the first member of my family to go off to college. I grew up in rural Alabama, 50 miles from Montgomery. Outside of a little place called Troy.
My father was a sharecropper, a tenant farmer. But back in 1944, when I was four years old — and I do remember when I was four. How many of you remember when you were four? What happened to the rest of us?
My father had saved $300. And a man sold him 110 acres of land. We still own this land today. On this farm raised a lot of cotton and corn. Lots of peanuts, cows and chickens.
If you come to Washington and visit my congressional office, in Atlanta and visit my office, the first thing the staff will offer you would be some peanuts, because we raise a lot of peanuts in Georgia, like we raised in Alabama. But don't tell the people in Georgia I don't eat too many of those peanuts. I ate so many peanuts when I was growing up, I just don't want to see any more peanuts. Some time I get on a flight flying from Atlanta to Washington, or Washington back to Atlanta, and a flight attendant tried to offer me some peanuts. I said, "No thank you. I don't care for any peanuts."
Now on the farm, you heard me say we raised a lot of chickens. I know here as students, you're smart. You're gifted. But you don't know anything about raising chickens. "March," book one, would tell you that as a little boy, growing up on this farm, it was my responsibility to care for the chickens and raise the chickens. Do any you know anything about raising chickens? Well why don't we compare notes, then?
The setting hen would set. You take the fresh eggs, mark them with a pencil, place them under the setting hen and wait for three long weeks for the chicks to hatch. I know some of you are saying, "Now John Lewis, why did you mark them fresh eggs with a pencil before you place them under the setting hen?"
Well from time to time another hen would get on that same nest and there would be some more fresh eggs. So when the chicks were hatched, I'm a fool the setting hens. I'm a cheat on the setting hens. I would take these little chicks and give them to another hen. I put them in a box with a lantern to raise them on their own.
I was never quite able to save $18.98 to order the most inexpensive incubator at the Sears Roebuck store. Now students, most of you are too young, and your teachers, your president, all your professors are too young to know anything about the Sears Roebuck catalog. Is a big book, is a heavy book, a thick book. Some people call it the Wish Book: "I wish I had this. I wish I had that."
So I just kept on wishing. But as a little boy, about eight or nine years old, I wanted to be a minister. I wanted to preach the Gospel. So one of my uncles brings me a Bible and I learned to read the Bible. And I would gather all my chickens together in a chicken yard. And my brothers and sisters and cousins would line up outside of the chicken yard and I would start speaking of preachin. And when I look back on it, some of the chicken would shake their heads. They never quite said "amen," but I am convinced of some of those chickens that I preached to in the '40s and '50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in the Congress. And some of those chickens was just a little more productive. At least they produced eggs.
When we visit the little town of Troy, visit Montgomery, visit Tuskegee, visit Birmingham, I saw those signs that said "white men," "colored men," "white women," "colored women," "white waiting," "colored waiting." I would come home and ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great grandparents: Why? They would say, "That's the way it is. Don't get in the way, don't get in trouble!"
I don't like segregation. I don't like racial discrimination. I wanted to do something about it, but I didn't know what to do. I heard about Rosa Parks. I heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. The action of Rosa Parks. The words and leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired me to find a way to get in the way.
I met Rosa Parks and I was 17. The next year at the age of 18, I met Martin Luther King Jr. and I got involved. I got in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.
Now more than ever before, it is time for each and every one of us to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. My "March," book one, book two, book three is saying in effect that when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something, to stand up.
As young students, we stood in the way of peace. We stated a philosophy and a discipline for nonviolence. And we started sitting in. We were sitting at a lunch counter in a restaurant and someone would come up and spit on us. Put lighted cigarettes in our hair, put down our backs, and we were told over and over again if we continue to sit in we will be arrested and taken to jail.
No one want to be arrested and go to jail. But that was a part of the price we had to pay to change things. When I heard that we may get arrested and go to jail — I wanted to look what students called back then called fresh. I wanted to look clean. I wanted to look sharp, but I had very little money. So I went to a used men's store in downtown Nashville, and I bought a suit and a vest came with it. I paid $5 for this. If I still had this suit today I probably could sell it on eBay for a lot of money.
But when I was arrested I felt free. I felt that I've been liberated. I had crossed over and I have not looked back since.
During the '60s, I was arrested 40 times and since I've been in Congress, five more times. And I'm probably going to get arrested again for something. Because sometimes you must find a way to make it plain, to make it clear. To dramatize the issue, help mobilize people to stand up, to speak up and speak out.
Just think a few short years ago, to be exact in 1961, the same year that President Barack Obama was born, black people and white people were seated together on a Greyhound bus or trailway bus leaving Washington D.C. and travel through the south. We were beaten along the way. Arrested, in jail, but we didn't give up. We kept our faith, we kept our eyes on the prize.
Because of our action, President Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy intervened. And by November 1, 1961, those signs that said "white waiting," "colored waiting," "white men," "colored men," "white women," "colored women." Those signs came tumbling down. So I say to you as young people, as students, stand up. Be brave. Be courageous. Be bold. Help create what we call the beloved community. Help redeem the soul of America.
As the late Phillip Randolph, who was the dean of black leadership when we planned march on Washington, would say over and over again, maybe our foremothers and our forefathers all came to this great land in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now. So we have to look out for each other and care for each other.
We can do it. And we must do it. Dr. King put it another way: We must learn to live together. If not we will perish. He told us over and over again. He taught us that hate is too heavy a burden to bear. Never hate, never lose the sense of hope. Never give up. Hold on.
Just think a few short years ago in our country here in America. People of color could not register to vote simply because of the color of their skin. We have to change that. Some people gave their very lives. The only thing I did on a bridge in Selma, I gave a little blood.
We have changed America and I say to you as young people, as students we must use the vote, because the vote is precious, it's almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent instrument or tool in a democratic society. We must never ever give up on the right to vote. So on every election we get to get out there and vote. And more and more young people, and more and more women must get out there and run for office and get elected and turn our country around.
So these two young men here Andrew Ayden, Nate Powell. We are like brothers. We are Southerners. We've seen it close up. We want to leave this country a little better off than we found it. We want to leave this little piece of real estate we call Earth a little better. We want to continue to carry a message of hope, a message of love. A message of peace.
So don't get weary, don't become bitter or hostile. Do your best and do it so well that no one else can do it any better. You heard me say and I'll say it again, I feel more than lucky. I feel very blessed that I got to know Martin Luther King Jr. who was assassinated. I cry. I mourn, but I didn't give up. We must not cry now. We can mourn. We can pray. We got to put on our marching shoes.
It was so beautiful, so beautiful, just a few weeks ago to see hundreds and thousands of women joined by men, by little children marching. There is nothing more powerful than the marching feet of a determined people. Look I know some of us feel down. But don't be down. When you get knocked down, get up. And continue to pick them up and put them down. Continue to play a role and play so well that no one else can play it better. Use your education.
Look we didn't have a website. We hadn't heard of the internet. We didn't have a fax machine. We had an old mimeograph machine. But we brought about a nonviolent revolution, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas. And signs that I saw and I was brought up in rural Alabama, those signs are gone and they will not return. The only place that we will see those signs today will be in a book, or a video, or in a museum.
But we are not there yet. There are forces in our country that want to take us back. We come too far. We made too much progress to go back. We want to go forward and redeem the soul of America and save this little planet we call Earth.
Yes, I almost died on the bridge attempting to walk from Selma to Montgomery. To dramatize to the nation the need for a voting rights act. It is my hope, my prayers that in the days, weeks and months and years to come that none of you will be beaten, or jailed, but if that's the price we must pay to save the planet, to leave this little piece of real estate we call the Earth a little greener, a littler cleaner and a little more peaceful, then we must be willing to pay that price.
So go out there and do what you must do. Thank you very much.