Taylor Branch reporting: Last week, we reviewed a series of reports about John Lewis’ now-famous speech—the speech he gave, at age 23, at the March of Washington.
There was much discussion of the fact that Lewis agreed to change some parts of the original speech. But every time we turned around, we seemed to get a different account of what the speech had originally said!
The analysts still weren’t satisfied! So last Friday, we took Taylor Branch to happy hour over at Penn Station. Rather, we took his book, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63.
We ended up spending a good chunk of the weekend with Branch’s book. But first, here’s his account concerning that now-famous speech:
According to Branch, the original version of Lewis’ speech included contributions by several other SNCC leaders. According to Branch, this is the way the language about General Sherman came in:
BRANCH (page 873): James Forman inserted references to specific outrages, such as the caning of C.B. King by the Albany sheriff, and in his swashbuckling style contributed a vision of conquest: “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 crack the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.” After polishing by Julian Bond and Eleanor Holmes, among others, the final draft of Lewis’ speech became a collective manifesto of SNCC’s early years.According to Branch, “trouble over the speech began on Tuesday afternoon, the day before the march.” It started with Cardinal O’Boyle, but spread to others, with special concern about the claim in the speech that Kennedy administration’s newly proposed civil rights bill “came ‘too little too late’ and was unworthy of SNCC support.”
According to Branch, the resolution occurred the next day, underneath the Lincoln Memorial, even as the day’s speeches were being delivered. The dispute now centered on the language about the “scorched earth” march through the South.
Branch has Dr. King serving as final mediator. In Branch’s account, Dr. King correctly surmises that the “scorched earth” language wasn’t Lewis’ own.
“John, I know you as well as anybody,” Branch quotes Dr. King saying (page 879). “That doesn’t sound like you.”
Was Dr. King this all-knowing in this particular incident? We don’t know, though Branch’s book is meticulously sourced to the voluminous oral and written histories of these life-changing events. We moved from there back to Branch’s detailed accounts of the astonishing events of the 1961 Freedom Rides, where we spent a good chunk of the weekend.
If you watch that PBS documentary we recommended last week, we will suggest that you follow it up with Branch’s deeply detailed accounts of the events that program portrays. It’s hard to believe that such events ever happened on this earth, or that they could have been so widely forgotten.
Once you start, that documentary is hard to stop watching. Branch takes you deep inside the events PBS put on the screen.