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John Lewis Tells America to "Wake Up"

John Lewis, the 23-year-old chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) drafted the speech excerpted below for the 1963 March on Washington. When copies of the speech were circulated in advance, march organizers, as well as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, objected to his strong rhetoric and criticisms of the federal government. The speech that Lewis delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 was a toned-down version that he agreed to only after aging civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph personally appealed to him not to endanger the success of such a historic event.

In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration's civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late….

This bill will not protect young children and old women from police dogs and fire hoses, for engaging in peaceful demonstrations….It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama and Georgia, who are qualified to vote but lack a sixth-grade education…. People have been forced to leave their homes because they dared to exercise their right to register to vote. What is there in this bill to ensure the equality of a maid who earns $5 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year?....

I want to know, which side is the Federal Government on?

The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The nonviolent revolution is saying, "We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure, that could and would assure us a victory."

To those who have said, "Be patient and wait," we must say that "patience" is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence…..

The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it into the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy. Listen, Mr. Congressman. Listen, fellow citizens. The black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won't be a "cooling-off" period.

All of us must get in the revolution. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and every hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution is complete. In the Delta of Mississippi, in southwest Georgia, in Alabama, Harlem, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation, the black masses are on the march!

We won't stop now. All of the forces of Eastland, Bamett, Wallace and Thurmond won't stop this revolution. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. 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. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy. We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I say to you, WAKE UP AMERICA!

Source | In John Lewis and Michael D'Orson, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1999), 216-23, 225-28.
Creator | John Lewis
Item Type | Speech
Cite This document | John Lewis, “John Lewis Tells America to "Wake Up",” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed May 26, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1258.

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