John Lewis to Young Americans: Stand Up, Speak Out, Be Courageous

The civil rights veteran hopes the March on Washington will inspire a new generation of leaders.

Posted: 08/22/2013 08:30 AM EDT
John Lewis to Young Americans: Stand Up, Speak Out, Be Courageous

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a two-part conversation with Rep. John Lewis about the March on Washington. Part one can be viewed here.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, many experts and everyday Americans suspect he'd still have a dream. The level of unemployment among African-Americans continues to soar above the national rate and the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act that the civil rights leader fought so hard for.

The 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington will be less celebration and more a call to action for jobs and the protection of one of Americans' most fundamental and precious rights.

"The 'Colored' and 'White' signs are gone and hopefully they won't return. But 50 years later, we have these invisible signs," Rep. John Lewis told BET.com. "The Voting Rights Act was passed two years after the march, but today there are forces all across America making it difficult for people to register and to vote."

Fifty years ago, several whites supported the civil rights movement, but the protesters gathered on the National Mall were mostly Black. Lewis hopes that large numbers of Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans also will participate this year.

When King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, Lewis adds, it was "not just a dream for African-Americans but for all Americans. As A. Philip Randolph said, "Maybe, just maybe, our forefathers came to this great land on different ships, but we're all in the same boat now.'"

Lewis also hopes that the march will light a fire in young adults, inspiring a new generation of leaders to find the courage to both stand up and speak out.

"That's one of the reasons I wanted to do the graphic novel March: to inspire young people to say, 'They did it; we can do it. We can organize. We can mobilize'," the Georgia lawmaker said. "And [today's young people] are better prepared, better educated. They have the ability and capacity to reach out and communicate, using resources and technology that we didn't have."

The greatest lesson the young and not so young can learn from the original march is to be organized, disciplined and not deviate from their sense of purpose, Lewis counseled.

"That march was focused. It was all about petitioning the government not just for a strong piece of civil rights action, but to act," he said. "They could not deny that sea of humanity on the Mall telling Congress and President Kennedy you must act, you must do something."

Lewis hopes protesters will send an equally potent message in 2013 and to an expanded audience.

"I think a strong and powerful message will be sent not just to Congress and President Obama, but to forces in our country who want to take us back and turn back the clock. Those who say what do they want now and we want our country back. Back from what?" Lewis said. "We want to go forward and create a truly multiracial, democratic society."

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(Photo: Alexis C. Glenn/UPI/Landov)

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