Rep. Lewis Reflects On King, Obama

Barack Obama accepts the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. Rep. John Lewis, the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington, reflects on the historic nature of Obama's nomination.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Tonight, because of coincidence or perhaps strategic planning, Senator Obama accepts the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of another historic speech - by Martin Luther King Jr.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

JOHN LEWIS: August 28, 1963 was a beautiful, hot summer day in Washington. When I got up to speak, I saw a sea of humanity. You saw many young people getting up in the trees so they could get a better view. You saw people with their feet in the water, trying to keep cool.

BLOCK: John Lewis was the youngest person to speak that day, 23 years old. His was the sixth speech; Dr. King was number 10. Lewis is now a congressman from Georgia, 68 years old. That's old enough to have witnessed an incredible arc of history - from his days as a civil rights worker, beaten bloody by police, to tonight, when he will recount his story at Invesco Field.

Our co-host, Michele Norris, spoke with Lewis this morning in Denver about that historic day.

LEWIS: August, 1963, we live in a different America. In the heart of the American South, hundreds and thousands of people have been arrested, jailed. People have been beaten down by fire hoses, chased by police dogs in the 11 states of the old Confederacy, from Virginia to Texas. Except from some of the large urban centers, it was almost impossible for people of color to register to vote.

They had to pass a so-called literacy test. They were asked questions like how many bubbles(ph) in the water? How many jellybeans in a jar? It was a place of fear. I think in some quarters of America, people of color were afraid to be afraid.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Now, when Dr. King spoke of the dream, as a young man yourself, in your dreams, was this among the possibilities that you thought of that you would see an African-American accept the nomination from a major political party in the United States of America, the possibility that a black man might move into the White House?

LEWIS: I never, never ever dream of the day, that day will come and I will be a witness to the possibility of a black man being elected president of the United States of America. We were just trying to get a hamburger, trying to get a library card, trying to end segregation in public schools, trying to get the right to vote. And maybe, just maybe, some black men and women will be elected to a local position - a mayor, a city council person, maybe to the State House or State Senate, or maybe to Congress. But we never, never thought of the idea of a black man being elected president of the United States of America.

NORRIS: When he speaks, you'll be focused on him, and you're going to surrounded by more than 76,000 people. And they all have their own racial histories, and some of them at some point in their lives, may have been okay with segregation. They may have been the people that you once called the oppressors. As you see them all applauding Barack Obama, rallying around Barack Obama, what goes through your mind?

LEWIS: Oh, it's a little of everything. And it's what Dr. King was talking about. That day will come when we will forget about race and color and see people as people, as human beings. And it's going to be amazing for me, and I'm going to do everything possible not to shed tears of joy. I know Dr. King and others are looking down, and they're probably saying hallelujah, hallelujah.

NORRIS: When Dr. King spoke in 1963, he talked about America reaching the solid rock of brotherhood. Are we there yet?

LEWIS: We are not there. We have not yet created the solid rock of brotherhood. We have not yet created the beloved community, a truly multi- racial democracy, but we're on our way. And there will be no turning back. We are on our way. With the nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee, it is a major down payment on the fulfillment of the dream.

NORRIS: A down payment.

LEWIS: It's a major down payment.

NORRIS: We're not there yet, but a down payment.

LEWIS: We're not there yet. You can call it a down payment. You can call it an installment, but we are on our way. And each generation must continue to pay the price.

NORRIS: Congressman Lewis, thank you very much.

LEWIS: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's John Lewis, congressman from Georgia, with our co-host Michele Norris in Denver.

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Lewis Sees New Racial Era With Obama's Success

Party members at the Democratic National Convention will pay tribute Thursday night to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who on the same day in 1963 delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington.

The tribute will be introduced by Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who marched with King and stood with him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day 45 years ago.

As a very young leader of the civil rights movement, Lewis survived violent confrontations with police and white mobs before he marched with King in Washington. Of the 10 people who spoke alongside King that day, Lewis is the lone survivor.

The memories of those days are all around Lewis as the Democrats pick Barack Obama as the party's first African-American presidential nominee.

King's speech made history, and Lewis says that will happen again, when Obama speaks before 75,000 supporters at Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High on Thursday night.

"When Barack Obama accepts the Democratic nomination to become the president of the United States of America and starts speaking, I think all of America and many parts of the world — the hopes, the longings, the aspirations and the dreams — will be hanging on every word he says," Lewis says.

"It's going to be incredible. You know, people died. Some people didn't make it to the March on Washington. They were beaten. They were tear-gassed. Some were shot and killed. And even after the March on Washington, where there had been so much hope, so much optimism, we had the terrible bombing in a church in Birmingham, where four little girls were killed. I thought I cried all my tears," he says.

Lewis says he feels blessed to have lived to see this day come around.

Obama names Lewis as one of his heroes, along with President Abraham Lincoln and King. Obama has studied the civil rights movement.

Lewis says that he has no regrets that Obama is not a child of the movement, and he is grateful that he and others helped create the situation that produced Obama.

"He is free of a lot of the battles and scars that many of us suffered," Lewis says.

"He never saw the signs that said 'White Men,' 'Colored Men,' 'White Women,' 'Colored Women,' " Lewis adds. "He never tasted the fruits of segregation and racial discrimination, so he is a different human being. He should be free to liberate the rest of America, and maybe take a message to the rest of the world."

Still, Lewis says he would like to hear from Obama that this is not the end — or even a new beginning — but a continuation of a long struggle. If white America embraces Obama, he says, maybe we can all move up a little bit.

Lewis says that all over his home state of Georgia, young people feel something is happening.

"And you hear people saying, 'I was not there with you to march across the bridge at Selma. I was not at the March on Washington. But I am in this struggle to make Barack Obama president,' " Lewis says.

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