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NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript: Civil Rights

Interview

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DAVID GREGORY:
And good Sunday morning, thousands of people gathered here in Washington Saturday to recreate the March on Washington where Dr. King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. And it was exactly 50 years ago today, August 25, 1963, that Dr. King and executive secretary of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, appeared right here on Meet the Press. Many of you either already ahd the chance or will have the opportunity to see that special program as we have made it -- the original broadcast -- available across the country. Our roundtable joins us in just a moment, but first, joining me now, the only living speaker from the March on Washington, Congressman John Lewis. He spoke yesterday in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

[TAPE: JOHN LEWIS]

JOHN LEWIS:
You cannot stand by, you cannot sit down. You got to stand up. Speak up. Speak out. And get in the way. Make some noise

DAVID GREGORY:
Congressman Lewis, welcome back to Meet the Press.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS:
Well, thank you very much, David, for having me.

DAVID GREGORY:
What a moment. We actually have the two images. There you were 50 years ago as a 23 year old, speaking so powerfully. And 50 years later, an elder statesman, sir, if you don't mind me saying.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS:
I don't mind.

DAVID GREGORY:
I pioneer of the civil rights struggle. That had to be quite a moment.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS:
It was a the moving moment to stand there in the same spot 50 years later, where Dr. King and others stood. I think in the past 50 years, we had witnessed what I like to call a nonviolent revolution in America. A revolution of values, a revolution of ideas, and our country was a better country.

DAVID GREGORY:
The president will speak on Wednesday in the same spot. He'll make 50 years since the "I Have a Dream" speech. We've talked over the years and you told me about a year and a half in your view, a lot of people can't get comfortable with the idea of an African American president, even though what a testament to the progress and the dream that Dr. King had. And you ever said during your speech yesterday, there are forces, there are people who want to take us back. What specifically are you talking about?

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS:
Well, I hear people over and over again saying they want to take our country back. Take it back where? Where are we going? We need to go forward. We make so much progress. When I was growing up, I saw those signs that said, "White Men," "Colored Men," "White Women," "Colored Women," "White Waiting," "Colored Waiting." Those signs are gone.

When I first came to Washington 1961, the same year that President Barack Obama was born, to go on the freedom rides, black people and white people couldn't be seated on a bus or a train together to travel through the south. So when our children grew up and their children grew up, they would night see those signs. The only places they would see those signs would be in a book, in a museum, or on a video.

DAVID GREGORY:
Do you see some of the same trappings of resentment and fear in our modern-day politics? Is that what you're warning of when you see some of those forces coming back?

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS:
Well I think that some forces want to create this sense of fear. They think the country is moving too fast, and maybe becoming too progressive. The country is not the same country. (UNINTEL PHRASE). People coming together. And in a short time, the minority will be the majority.

DAVID GREGORY:
Is there backlash that comes with that in your judgment?

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS:
Well, I think as Americans, we must be prepared to make the adjustment and not be afraid. Be courageous. Be embracive. Embrace the change.

DAVID GREGORY:
As you look at Dr. King's message 50 years ago, and we remember that it was a March on Washington for jobs and freedom, one aspect of Dr. King's dream has not been realized. And that is economic equality. He spoke on this program 50 years ago, he said, "You've got to have social equality before you can have economic equality."

There is more social equality for African Americans, and yet look at the statistics. Back in 1963, the rate of unemployment among African Americans, twice that of whites. That was 1963. The page you're headed to today, it's still twice that of whites. That's got to trouble you.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS:
It is very troublesome. We have a lot of work to do. The dream is not yet fulfilled.

DAVID GREGORY:
Do you blame anyone in particular? Because through Republican leadership and Democratic leadership, you still see the state of affairs.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS:
Well, this president, Barack Obama, has been trying to get the Congress to move in a dramatic way to create jobs, to put people back to work. But it's all of our responsibility, not just those in elected positions, but it's the business community, educational institutions, we all must play a role in putting people back to work.

DAVID GREGORY:
Final question. The president will speak in the very spot that Dr. King spoke 50 years to the day. One of his critics, Tavis Smiley, African American who's criticized the president consistently. He talked about his hope that the president would be King-like, but not King-like. He doesn't want him to just echo the words, but wants a specific set of proposals. What do you expect from the president?

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS:
Well, the president is the president. He's not a civil rights leader. There's a difference. President Johnson, President Kennedy, it was said to us from time to time, when I met with President Kennedy and later with President Johnson, part of the so-called "Big Six," they would say, "Make me do it. Make me say, 'Yes' when I may have a desire to say, 'No.' Create the climate, create the environment. It is left up to the civil rights community to get out there and push and pull."

DAVID GREGORY:
You're a living testament to the idea that you've got to make some noise in this society. And you've done that. And I really appreciate your time here this morning.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS:
Well, thank you very much.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT


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