John Lewis (second from left), was asked by the March on Washington organizers to tone down his speech. Lewis, 23, was the newly named head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Credit: National Archives

Behind The Scenes At The March On Washington

August 27, 2013

On August 28, 1963 WGBH Radio covered one of the most historic days in civil right history. Fifty years later, on Wednesday, August 28, WGBH will stream the original live coverage from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — unedited and in real-time — to recognize this milestone anniversary.

The below is an excerpt from WGBH News documentary Witness to History- which airs Wednesday from 2-3PM on 89.7FM. 

The night before the March on Washington in 1963, the organizers of the march got a look at the prepared remarks of John Lewis. Lewis, who is now a Congressman in Georgia, was just 23-years-old at the time and the newly-elected head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which represented the young civil rights workers who often expressed impatience with the  veteran civil rights workers. 

Lewis agreed to tone down his remarks at the personal request of A. Phillip Randolph, who was the motivating force behind the March on Washington. When you listen to Lewis, you hear in his tone and delivery some of the edge the veteran organizers were uncomfortable with. 

The end of Lewis' speech was particularly problematic for the older leaders who thought it volatile. He planned to say:

"We will march through the South- through Dixie- the way Sherman did. We will pursue our own scorched earth 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."

But at the podium the conclusion of his speech was tempered: 

We will march through the South, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love, and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.

By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers we shall shatter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of [inaudible] democracy. We must say, “Wake up America, Wake up,” for we cannot stop and we will not and cannot be patient.

WGBH News is supported by:
Back to top