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Rep. Lewis Reflects On King, Obama

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.