John Lewis, “Speech at the March on Washington,” Teaching-Learning Materials

Classroom Activities

A.  Listen to or watch excerpts from Lewis’s speech, following one of the links from the on-line resources section of this unit.  How would you characterize Lewis’s delivery?  Does it enhance or detract from his message?  How so?

B.  One of the distinguishing features of Lewis’s speech is its perspective: He speaks for the grassroots workers and local people who fought racial injustice in countless communities across the South.  Does Lewis sound presumptuous in speaking on their behalf?  Or does he sound like an authentic voice for their experience and concerns?  Explain.

C.  Should Lewis have given into the pressure to change his prepared remarks?  Why or why not?  Given Lewis’s reasons for changing the speech, are the changes effective?  Would you have changed it differently?  Why or why not?

D. Do you consider the tone and content of Lewis’s speech militant? Compared to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, does Lewis’s speech seem more or less militant? Explain the key differences in tone and content according to such militancy criteria.

E. Who do you think is the target audience for Lewis’s speech based on reading the speech only, ensuring that you offer evidence from the speech to defend your position.

F. Offer examples of Lewis’s use of pathos (emotional proof) in the speech. Do you find his use of emotion powerful? Do you think it would enhance or limit the persuasiveness of his for his target audience? Do you think it would enhance or limit the persuasiveness of his speech for those who are more likely to support a more moderate approach to the advancement of African American civil rights? Be sure to explain your answer.

Student Research

A.  Search for newspaper coverage (including editorials) of the speeches at the March on Washington.  Did most journalists include quotes or excerpts from the speech Lewis actually delivered or from the text distributed in advance?  On which aspects of Lewis’s speech did the journalists focus?  Were journalists generally favorable, unfavorable, or neutral toward Lewis’s message?

B.  Search for excerpts from autobiographies by former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) about the March on Washington (see, for example, John Lewis’s Walking with the Wind, Mary King’s Freedom Song, and James Forman’s The Making of Black Revolutionaries).  What do they say about the controversy surrounding Lewis’s speech?  How do their opinions about the revision to the speech differ?

C.  The primary civil rights issues addressed in Lewis’s speech are violence against civil rights workers, voter discrimination, and employment discrimination.  Read relevant excerpts from scholarly books about each of those problems at the time of Lewis’s speech (see, for example, Michal R. Belknap’s Federal Law and Southern Order, Steven F. Lawson’s Black Ballots, and Anthony S. Chen’s The Fifth Freedom).  Write a research paper that briefly explains each problem, analyzes Lewis’s message about each problem, and evaluates whether or not Lewis presented a persuasive appeal demanding a solution to each problem.

D.  Investigate Lewis’s involvement in the civil rights movement and politics after the March on Washington.  Write a short biography that identifies a central principle (or group of principles) that explains his life’s work, identifies the most significant causes in which he has been involved, describes the challenges he has faced, and explains the significance of his civil rights activism in the 1960s for his current career.

E.  Write a brief evaluation of Lewis’s address as a public speech.  Develop a set of criteria for an effective speech at a political rally (including basic criteria related to audience adaptation, organization, delivery, etc.), and evaluate how Lewis’s speech measures up.

F. Write a paper on the differing organizations involved in the African American civil rights movement from the 1950s through the 1970s. Identify each organization’s primary mission and strategies of protest. How do their goals and tactics differ from one another? And how did each contribute to the civil rights advancements that took place in the 1950s and 1960s in particular.

Citizenship Resources

A.  Young people often are marginalized in politics even though many are very active at the grassroots level.  For example, Lewis was included in the March on Washington program because of his grass roots leadership, yet parts of his message were censored.  Can you think of other cases in which young leaders have been marginalized in the political sphere?  Why are the experiences, messages, and ideas of young people often devalued when it comes to political matters?

B.  The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) dissolved in the early 1970s.  Conduct an Internet search to identify current grass roots organizations that organize local communities to fight against racial and ethnic injustices.  To what extent do these organizations try to communicate their message to the public and gain public support?  Are their messages generally effective or ineffective?  Why?

C.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed one of the issues for which Lewis advocated–equal voting rights.  Still, the Justice Department investigates scores of voting rights cases every year (visit the Voting Section homepage for the Civil Rights Division at http://www.justice.gov/crt/voting/).  What are the salient issues related to voter discrimination today?  Choose one of those issues, and write a short essay that tries to raise public awareness and understanding about the problem.

D.  In 2008, members of Congress introduced legislation that purported to strengthen the civil rights guaranteed in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The bill (known as the Civil Rights Act of 2008) was never passed, but it can be found online at http://www.thomas.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c110:S.2554.is:.  Do the provisions of this bill seem consistent with the fair labor and equal employment opportunity messages presented by Lewis and other speakers at the March on Washington?  How have civil rights issues and concerns changed since the March on Washington?