Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with Richard Pacelle, professor of political science at the University of Tennessee, to find some answers.
Over the next week, a host of civil rights events will be taking place in Washington, D.C., leading up to the 50th anniversary next week of the March on Washington.
More than a quarter million people turned out for the historic event, highlighted by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The march is credited with giving momentum to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Congressman John Lewis of Georgia was there that day. At just 23 years old, he was chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, one of the most important groups in the American civil rights movement.
A Historic Day In Washington
Lewis stood near MLK on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and was the youngest speaker of the day. (See video below, and a transcript of Lewis’ speech can be read here, and the original speech before edits can be read here.)
He recalled the scene as he took the podium:
“Hundreds of thousands of young people — students and volunteers, black and white — up in the trees, trying to get a better view,” Lewis told Here & Now.
In his speech, Lewis aired his misgivings about the 1964 Civil Rights Act — which was still just a bill at the time — because he thought there wasn’t enough in the protecting people from violence in the South.
“We are tired of being beaten by policemen,” Lewis said in his 1963 speech. “We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jails over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient?”
Inspiring A New Generation
Fifty years later, Lewis worries that people are not as engaged in the struggle for civil rights.
We all can get into good trouble, necessary trouble, to change things.
“I’m deeply concerned that the present generation failed to grasp what happened,” Lewis said. “That’s why I think it is so important for young people — and people not so young — to know there’s a role for them to play. I have a feeling that people are just too quiet. And the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is a good opportunity for them to move their feet.”
He says that he was inspired to participate fully in the civil rights movement because of a comic called “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story,” and hopes his graphic novel could inspire the same response.
The comic he read in 1957 inspired him to “sail against the wind,” even to be arrested for what he believed in.