Memorial to a man and a movement

Washington’s soon-to-be unveiled Martin Luther King Jr. memorial might offer visitors and tourists a window into the country’s history, but for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), it’s a piece of his life.

Lewis was by King’s side on Aug. 28, 1963, when the civil rights leader delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to throngs of protesters gathered on the National Mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

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Lewis was a speaker that day, too. Representing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he remembers getting some last-minute edits from his mentor and others before they addressed the masses.

“The original words represented people in the heart of the Deep South that couldn’t be there, and we had to speak for them,” Lewis remembered in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office. King read the speech, looked at Lewis and said, “That doesn’t sound like you, John.”

In addition to Lewis, many other members of Congress were present that day, and for several of them, the new memorial, which President Obama will dedicate on Aug. 28, stirs strong recollections of both a person and a movement that changed the course of the country.

The four-acre site, situated on the Tidal Basin near the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, includes a 30-foot likeness of King, a 450-foot wall inscribed with 14 quotations from his speeches and writings and two sculptures, titled “Mountain of Despair” and “Stone of Hope.” Among the memorial’s artists are sculptor Lei Yxin and stone carver Nick Benson.

Lewis remembers the day in great detail. King’s delegation left the Willard Hotel that morning, making its way to Capitol Hill for a “cordial” meeting with congressional leaders and the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Judiciary committees, who would shepherd President Kennedy’s civil rights bill through Congress.

At approximately 11 a.m., the delegation made its way, arm in arm, toward the Lincoln Memorial. Lewis remembers the crowds. 

“People were already marching,” he said. “We looked toward Union Station, and there was a sea of humanity that pushed us down Constitution Avenue toward the Washington Monument and onto the Lincoln Memorial.” The U.S. National Park Service estimated the crowd at approximately 250,000, at the time the largest ever, with television coverage to match.

Among those in attendance were close to 70 sitting members of Congress from both parties, who were greeted with cries of “Pass the bill!” referring to Kennedy’s civil rights legislation.

After King and other members of his  delegation suggested that Lewis make some tweaks to his speech, the student leader acquiesced. Cut were the words that criticized the president’s bill as being “too little and too late,” the call to march “through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did” and the question, “Which side is the federal government on?”

Lewis admits to being somewhat impatient back then. But he had something to say about the racism that was then routine, and he wanted to be heard. 

“It was demeaning, dehumanizing, an affront to your dignity, your sense of pride,” he said. “When I look back today, there was a lot of rhetoric. I got my point across. People cheered. I felt good.”

His colleague, freshman Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) watched Lewis speaking from Fisk University, where she was a student at the time. 

“I remember him to be so much older than we were,” she told The Hill. “He seemed to be an old, wise man.”

Three more speakers would follow before King finally rose to address the crowds. Lewis remembers King being in a good mood that day and looking forward to the march.

“I know he was ready not just to speak, but to preach, and that’s what he did,” he said. “He pulled something from down deep in his soul, especially when he talked about the dream. He loved this country. He wanted the country to be all it could be.”

The speech itself lasted roughly 16 minutes. When King finished, his words had stirred not just the crowds on the National Mall, but the nation. Within a year, the civil rights bill was signed into law.

Listening to Lewis and King that day was another future colleague of Lewis’s, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). Then a 16-year-old, Butterfield traveled with his father from Wilson, N.C., to be there. They found a spot on the southeast corner of the Reflecting Pool. Standing in the sweltering heat, they craned their necks to see the preacher from Atlanta speaking in the distance.

As a teenager, Butterfield, too, had lived with the racism embedded in the Jim Crow laws of the era. The hardest part was being ignored. So he organized sit-ins at local lunch counters and went to swim in the whites-only swimming pool. He remembers the pool manager acknowledging that integration was inevitable but telling him to be patient, and the white hot dog vendor telling him and a group of his friends that their money would go to the Ku Klux Klan. They bought the hot dogs and threw them away to make a point.

“It was almost comical,” Butterfield said. “It was sad that people were discriminated against … King put into words our efforts in [my hometown of] Wilson.”

Now some of those words uttered by King that day and throughout his career will be read by visitors who pass through the “Mountain of Despair” sculpture.

Many people admit that King would probably not like all the fuss.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), whose father was an early fundraiser and supporter of King’s, said: “He would not have allowed it to happen. He saw himself as a human being. He probably would have boycotted it and had a sit-in there.” 

But Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who was a public school teacher in Charleston in 1963, said the memorial is very timely.

“It was a long time coming,” he said.“But like many things, it happened in its time.”

Civil rights-era historian David J. Garrow makes the point that “King knew that some version of his identity had been taken from him and transmogrified into something bigger.”

Lewis agreed in part, but argued that by doing what he did, King emerged as the undisputed leader of the civil rights movement. 

On a recent visit to the memorial, Lewis climbed the scaffold surrounding King’s likeness, touched the granite head, kissed it and wept for the man who had been his personal friend and counsel.

“If it hadn’t been for him, I don’t know what would have happened to me, what would have happened to America,” Lewis said. The memorial “is a major presence on the Mall, on the front door of America to a man of peace.”