Rep. John Lewis, the only living speaker from the March on Washington, opened the Library of Congress exhibition "A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington" on the anniversary Aug. 28, and told the overflow audience, "This special day is almost too much."
The Georgia Democrat, known as "the conscience of the U.S. Congress", urged the crowd, "Enjoy this day, embrace it, and reflect on that speech of Martin Luther King, Jr."
The copy of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech submitted to the Library of Congress for copyright registration Oct. 2, 1963 was displayed in a one-day-only exhibit Aug. 28 with other treasures from the march.
Lewis, at age 23, was a keynote speaker and one of the "Big Six" civil rights leaders who had helped plan the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Aug. 28, 1963.
He said he revised the fiery speech just before giving it at the nonviolent event. Lewis had written that unless the march's demands were met, "We will march throughout 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 -- non-violently."
However, that afternoon, "Dr. King, my friend, my inspiration, my leader" encouraged him to modify it. "I couldn't say no to Dr. King." So Lewis "sat to the left of Lincoln (at the Memorial) and made changes on a portable typewriter."
Both the original version and the revised manuscript were exhibited in the one-day display, as was the first of Lewis' three-volume autobiographical graphic novel, "March". The title refers mainly to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, where Alabama state troopers beat protesters and fractured Lewis' skull. He almost died.
He survived more than 40 beatings, arrests, and jailings, especially during the Freedom Rides to integrate interstate buses, when Lewis and others tried to enter "the so-called 'Whites Only' waiting rooms and rest rooms. In 2013, those signs are gone. They will not return." Huge applause resounded throughout the Library's Great Hall, an exquisite two-story Italian Renaissance room with murals, mosaics, and vaulted marble ceilings.
"We live in a different country, a better country. We are a better people," said Lewis, one of the key civil rights leaders who helped make it better, as the March on Washington certainly did.
After his remarks opening the exhibition, he left to join Presidents Obama, Clinton, and Carter at the Lincoln Monument, where they delivered speeches at the "Let Freedom Ring" commemoration.
The exhibit "A Day Like No Other" has 40 black-and-white photographs from media photographers, independent photojournalists, and march participants. A video screen shows almost 60 other photos.
Featured photographers include Leonard Freed, whose widow Brigitte attended the ceremony; Bruce Davidson; Danny Lyon; Bob Adelman; Flip Schulke; and march participant Roosevelt Carter, whose negatives were discovered by chance by his daughter after Carter's death.
The images show "That peace, that hope, that joy that day," exhibit co-curator Maricia Battle of the Library's Prints and Photographs Division told me. "Despite the (fire) hosings, the bombings, the killings, people were peaceful, walking together, talking together."
A few of the many highlights:
- Leonard Freed's photo of young African Americans and whites, with linked arms, holding hands, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. "It's symbolic of the togetherness of all the people, their sincerity, their yearning," co-curator Verna Curtis told me. "They echo the columns" of the memorial.
- Freed's two photographs of a couple singing -- their song can almost be heard. "You can see their pain," Battle noted. "We're a generation (or more) removed from that pain."
- Flip (Graeme Phelps) Schulke's photograph of marchers, with the U.S. Capitol building in the background. "Schulke wanted a photo no one else would have. So he went to Union Station and offered the new arrivals a shortcut, but it was a circuitous route to get the Capitol in the background," Battle continued.
- Bob Adelman captured Dr. King gesturing, arm stretched on high, at the apex of his speech. "King was making very quick gestures during this part of his speech. It's amazing that Adelman caught the gesture," Curtis said. This was before rapid-fire shutter-release buttons.
- Danny Lyon's only photo of the march shows young black men, one holding his hand high, snapping his fingers, while another claps. "The younger people wanted to move a little more quickly, they were more restless," Battle commented.
Sounds like the 23-year-old John Lewis. Now an elder statesman, he has served in Congress for a quarter-century.
Lewis, as a boy in his hometown Troy, Alabama was refused a library card because of his race. Almost a half-century later, the Troy library invited him back to sign one of his many books -- and to give him a long overdue library card.
At the Aug. 28 ceremony, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington introduced Lewis as "an iconic leader -- a hero."
The exhibit "A Day Like No Other" brings that day vividly back to life, and keeps the dream in clear view.
For more info: Library of Congress, www.loc.gov, "A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington", Graphic Arts Galleries, ground level, Jefferson Building, 10 First Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. Free. Aug. 28 through March 1, 2014. See the online version of the exhibit at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/march-on-washington/. Many of the items in the one-day exhibit -- including draft legislation for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights act that the march helped pass -- can be viewed online at www.loc.gov/rr/mss.