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CBS "Face the Nation" - Transcript: 50 Years After the March on Washington

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LEWIS: We must say "Wake up, America! Wake up," for we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.

SCHIEFFER: And that was a very young John Lewis, 23 years old, as a matter of fact, up there on the podium with Martin Luther King Jr. Congressman Lewis joins us now to talk about that day. You heard Martin Luther King on the radio. You had been inspired by him. In college you organized sit-ins in Nashville. You became a freedom rider. You risked your life on the Southern bus stations by simply sitting in the seats that had been reserved for whites. You had been beaten and arrested many times before you got to that day in August of 1963. Congressman, welcome to the broadcast. I want to start a little before that -- that day, because you went with Martin Luther King Jr. and a delegation in June of that year to tell President Kennedy about the march on Washington. And he was not happy about it.

LEWIS: Well, I remember that day very, very well, meeting with President Kennedy. A. Philip Randolph, one of the leaders during that period, spoke up and said, "Mr. President, the Marxists are restless against (inaudible). The Marxists are restless, and we're going to march on Washington." You could tell by the body language of the president -- he, sort of, started moving and twisting. And he said, "Mr. Randolph, if you bring all these people to Washington, won't there be violence and chaos and disorder? And we will never get a Civil Rights bill through the Congress." And Mr. Randolph responded and said, "Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protest." We came out of that meeting and we spoke to members of the media and we said we had a meaningful, productive meeting with the president of the United States, and we told him we were going to march on Washington.

SCHIEFFER: Now, you were -- you were pretty much a firebrand in those days. I'm told you actually toned down the speech that you had planned to make. Why was that?

LEWIS: Well, some people thought my speech was a little too strong. Some were saying maybe a little too militant. I said in the beginning, in my prepared text, I thought the Kennedy-proposed legislation was too little and that it was too late. And in another part of the speech, I said, "You tell us to wait. You tell us to be patient. We cannot wait. We cannot be patient. We want our freedom and we want it now."

SCHIEFFER: Did Dr. King -- did he weigh in on that? Did he say, "John, maybe that's a little beyond where we should go"?

LEWIS: Yeah, Dr. King said, as he read some of the text -- he said, "John, that doesn't sound like you." I couldn't say no to Martin Luther King Jr. He was my inspiration. He was my hero.

SCHIEFFER: When you heard Martin Luther King speak, the whole part about "I have a dream" just -- just came out. That part wasn't written down. But as you heard it, what did you think of it?

(CROSSTALK)

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."

LEWIS: I knew he was not just speaking. He was preaching. He transformed the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial into a modern-day pulpit. And he knew. He knew he was making contact. Dr. King grew up in a church in Atlanta, and when he started preaching, his father would say to him from time to time, "Make it plain, son. Make it plain." So when he got to "I have a dream," he was making it plain.

SCHIEFFER: It was after that, of course, in the same year, that President Kennedy was assassinated; Lyndon Johnson became the president. And in 1965, you organized the march on Selma, Alabama, which also came to be a turning point in -- in this movement. Others -- you and others were beaten. We all saw it on television. Tell me about that day.

LEWIS: Well, on Sunday, March 7, 1965, about 600 of us attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, to dramatize to the state of Alabama and to the nation that people wanted to register to vote. All across the South, it was almost impossible for people to register to vote, simply because of the color of their skin. There was one county between Selma and Montgomery -- the county was more than 80 percent African-American. There was not a single registered voter in the county. So we had planned to walk all the way from Selma to Montgomery and take our concern to Governor Wallace. On that day, I was wearing a backpack, which became fashionable. I thought I was going to be arrested and I thought I was going to go to jail. So in this backpack I had two books, one apple, one orange -- I want to have something to eat -- and toothpaste, a toothbrush. I thought I was going to be in jail, I wanted to be able to brush my teeth. We get to the highest point on the bridge, down below we saw a sea of blue Alabama state troopers and a man identified himself and said, "I'm Major John Cloud of the Alabama State Troopers. This is an unlawful march. You will not be allowed to continue. You must return to your homes or go back to your church."

JOHN CLOUD: And you are ordered to disperse now and go back to your church.

LEWIS: And Jose Williams, who was walking behind me from Dr. King's organization said, "major, give us a moment to kneel and pray before we can pass the word back for people to kneel and pray." The major said, "troopers advance." We saw these guys putting on their gas masks. They came toward us, beating us with night sticks and trampling us with horses. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. I had a concussion at the bridge. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die.

SCHIEFFER: I think anyone, including me, who saw those pictures, would never forget them. And it was eight days after that, that Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act.

LEWIS: I want to say to you that President Johnson never gets the credit that he should receive. The night he gave that speech, it was the most meaningful speech any American president made in modern time on the whole question of vote rights or civil rights. And when he concluded that speech, he said, "and we shall overcome." Dr. King cried. I was sitting next to him. I cried. He introduced that deal. And the Congress passed it. And 48 years later, the Supreme Court gutted it, put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

SCHIEFFER: Well, you know, Justice Scalia said that provision amounted to a -- this is his -- his two words -- "racial entitlement."

LEWIS: I was shocked. I was shocked. I couldn't believe that a member of the United States Supreme Court was saying providing a way, making it possible for people to participate in a democratic process would be described as a racial entitlement.

SCHIEFFER: Final question, what do you think Martin Luther King would say today if he could look at America, see where it was, where we are have come?

LEWIS: 50 years later if Dr. King could speak to us, he would say we've come a distance, we have made a lot of progress. You're in the process of laying down the burden of race. But we're not there yet. He'd be grateful to see an African-American as president of the United States. It's almost unreal, unbelievable, Dr. King was there. 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, 50 years since I made the speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and look what you have done. Dr. King would say my dream is in the process of becoming real.

SCHIEFFER: John Lewis. Thank you so much.

LEWIS: We thank you very much, sir.

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