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Lewis: A beautiful, extraordinary message

Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia:
Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia: "I will never forget that morning when we met with President Kennedy."

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(CNN) -- The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, one of the defining addresses of the civil rights movement, to about a quarter-million people August 28, 1963. On Saturday, teach-ins and speeches were part of a two-day celebration of the march on Washington, where King delivered his address.

CNN anchor Renay San Miguel talked about the anniversary with Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, who was among those in attendance the day King gave his speech.

SAN MIGUEL: Congressman Lewis, for those too young, or not born, or just simply forgotten, set the stage for us of what was going on in this country in terms of civil rights -- or the lack of it -- at the time that this march was staged in August of '63.

LEWIS: First of all, people must remember in 1963, all across the American South, hundreds of thousands of individuals were involved a mighty movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. People were arrested and jailed. Some people beaten, shot and killed in Alabama, in Mississippi, in Georgia. In the state of Alabama, in the city of Birmingham during the spring and summer of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was involved a nonviolent campaign there, boycotted. The police commissioner used dogs and fire hoses against innocent people engaged in nonviolent protests.

Medgar Evers, the leader of the NAACP in Mississippi, [was] assassinated. People had been arrested in Georgia; in Jackson, Mississippi; and Nashville, Tennessee. So something had to give. President Kennedy went on nationwide television, second week in June, and spoke to the nation, and said that the question of race, the question of civil rights, is a moral issue. A few days later, we came to Washington and had a meeting with President Kennedy, and we told him we were going to march on Washington.

SAN MIGUEL: And what was the Kennedy administration's reaction?

LEWIS: I will never forget that morning when we met with President Kennedy. It was June 22nd. We were sitting there and one of the leaders of the so-called Big Six [civil rights organizations] spoke up and said, Mr. President, we're going to have a march on Washington. And you can tell by the very body language from President Kennedy, he didn't like what he heard. He started to move in his chair from one side to the other side and said if you bring all these Negroes to Washington, won't there be chaos and violence and disorder? And we will never be able to get a civil rights bill through the Congress.

Mr. [A. Philip] Randolph responded and said, Mr. President, this will be a peaceful, orderly, nonviolent protest. Along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, we came out on the lawn of the White House, announced to the media and to the nation we were going to have a march on Washington. President Kennedy later saw that we were determined, not going to turn back, he assisted us through the Department of Justice in setting up plans for the march on Washington, but he was very troubled by the possibility of all these people coming to Washington.

SAN MIGUEL: Congressman Lewis, I have to ask you how the march paved the way for what came immediately after... I'm talking about the Mississippi 'Freedom Summer of '64.' The Civil Rights Act came later that year, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

LEWIS: When we left at the end of the speech and we left Washington, and we went back to the South, there was so much hope, so much optimism. A part of that hope and optimism was dashed 18 days after the march on Washington. It was a terrible bombing of the Sixteenth [Street Baptist] Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were killed on a Sunday morning. And because of what happened there, we intensified our effort to gain the right to vote in Alabama and in Mississippi. We went into Selma, [Alabama] and later we organized the Mississippi [Freedom] Summer Project. And we started to demand the right to vote. The Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. President Johnson signed it into law. Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize.

He had a meeting with President Johnson and we said we need a voting rights act. President Johnson tells Dr. King we don't have the votes in the Congress to get to get a voting rights act passed. Dr. King came back to Georgia, met with the group of us, and said we will write that act. We went to Selma [Alabama] and we organized and we mobilized. And it was a confrontation in Selma known as Bloody Sunday. And a few days later, President Johnson introduced the voting right act. Congress debated it, passed it; he signed it into law.

But the march on Washington was that beautiful, extraordinary message of Martin Luther King Jr. [that] laid the groundwork for Selma, for Mississippi... for the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. And today, all around our world, because of what Martin Luther King Jr. said 40 years ago, people all over the world started to sing 'We Shall Overcome' -- in Berlin, Manila, Budapest, in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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