The John Lewis Speech Controversy


Countdown to the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the historic March on Washingto

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) lagged behind other civil rights groups in endorsing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.   They were the “young turks” practicing direct action and paying the price for it and, frankly, disenchanted with the idea of a mass demonstration that seemed conciliatory to the Kennedy Administration.

The SNCC speech at the March would be delivered by its new chairman, 23-year old John Lewis who had gained experience and visibility during his participation in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961.  Lewis builds the frame of the speech but receives the input of many other SNCC members, the speech is ultimately a collective statement calling those in power to task for their foot dragging in righting the wrongs of segregation and racism. SNCC-button

Lewis’ speech is distributed before the March and Washington’s Archbishop, Patrick O’Boyle, Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, Walter Reuther and others object to its content—in particular language that criticizes the Kennedy administration and seems to threaten violence.

“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,” said the original draft of the speech.

In an impromptu meeting at a security office in the rear of the Lincoln Memorial, the SNCC speech is debated. O’Boyle threatens to pull out of the March coalition but finally heads to the podium to address the Marchers with the promise that changes will be made to the speech.  Wilkins and Lewis have heated words and it is only the personal intervention of A. Philip Randolph, whose life work has laid the groundwork for this March on Washington, that convinces SNCC leaders to compromise on the language of the speech.

lew0-007 Despite revisions, Lewis’ speech is a powerful statement of impatience with the progress of civil rights in America.  He describes the final speech in his memoir:  “The speech still had fire.  It still had bite…It still had an edge, with no talk of ‘Negroes’—I spoke instead of ‘black citizens’ and the ‘black masses,’ the only speaker that day to use those terms.”


Photo:   Academy of Achievement/ Bettmann/Corbis.


~Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.

~Lewis, John with D’Orso, Michael, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998. Chapter 11.


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