It was a long way from the elegant ballroom of downtown Los Angeles’ Bonaventure Hotel back to his Aunt Senovia’s tin-roofed shotgun shack in rural Alabama. But somehow Georgia Congressman John Lewis, the iconic civil rights leader whose life began in the segregated Jim Crow South, was able to pull it all together for one thousand-plus people at the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Breakfast, hosted by the L.A. County Federation of Labor.
Speaking before a giant photo of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he was beaten unconscious in the aborted 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights march, Lewis displayed the speaking and preaching skills he said he developed at age 14 from practicing in front of the chickens who were his responsibility on the family farm. “It seemed like more of those chickens listened to me then, than members of Congress do today,” he quipped.
Lewis’ father was a sharecropper and a cotton picker until 1944,
Congressman John Lewis is the only survivor among the ten speakers at the March on Washington, a turning point in the civil rights movement that occurred 50 years ago, on August 28, 1963. The march is most famous as the setting of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” oration, but Lewis’ speech that day, representing the movement’s radical youth wing, provided a different kind of call to arms. It is a message that Lewis has continued to voice as a movement activist and an elected official.
Only a handful of the 250,000 people at event – officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to reflect the link between economic justice and civil rights – knew anything about the drama taking place behind the Lincoln Memorial. Under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, the longtime civil rights and trade union leader, the march had brought together the major civil rights organizations as well as labor unions and religious denominations and women’s groups.