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March on Washington History Comes Alive, With Moyers as Guide
July 25, 2013  | By David Bianculli  | 1 comment

This weekend on public TV, Bill Moyers takes the last surviving speaker of the March on Washington from 50 years ago, John Lewis, and revisits the Lincoln Memorial, where young school kids get a joltingly vivid taste of living history…

Those young students were there, on a field trip, to soak up the atmosphere, and the stories, of the Lincoln Memorial and what had happened there — including the galvanizing March on Washington of August 28, 1963, when politicians, protesters and performers took to the podium to address the overflowing mall demanding racial and economic equality.

It was a day when Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke last, delivering his famous “I have a dream” speech. A few speakers before him, though, was a 23-year-old student activist named John Lewis — who, half a century later, as a Georgia Democrat from the House of Representatives, found himself surrounded by eager young faces, firing questions about whether he actually knew Martin Luther King and fought for civil rights.

The impromptu encounter comes early in this weekend’s new edition of Moyers & Company, which runs at various times on local public TV stations (for days and times, check the Moyers & Company website). And it’s quietly electrifying, watching these young faces light up as though Lincoln himself had stepped down from his marble throne to stand among them and answer their questions.

Moyers, of course, was witness to that history — and, as press secretary to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a political player with an inside view of what that day, and that nonviolent march and all its fervent pleas for change, accomplished. Not right away, because horrid events, such as the Birmingham church bombing and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, were right around the corner.

But so, before too long, were the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the mid-Sixties. It was a pivotal moment in history, and Moyers, with this full-hour visit with Rep. John Lewis, the only surviving speaker from that momentous day 50 years ago, makes it live and breathe all over again.

Lewis calls it “an awesome day, an unbelievable day,” and says, “I will never forget just standing on those steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out.

“There was a wonderful spirit,” he adds. “You looked out, and just saw the signs from organizations, from church groups, labor groups, youth groups.  It was black and white. I think it represented one of the finest hours in American history.”

Ken Burns says often that almost all major American stories come down to race and place, and that’s certainly true of the March on Washington and what was said there. And in 2013, with the country reeling from a not guilty verdict after a white man shot and killed an unarmed black man, nothing in the issues raised in this weekend’s Moyers & Company feels at all dusty or musty.

Back in the studio after their Lincoln Memorial visit, Moyers questions Lewis at length about his memories of that day, and the nonviolent civil rights movement, and so much else. The questions are informed and informative, and lead Lewis to explain and explore his perspective.

When the hour begins, you’re drawn in by the sheer excitement of watching very young people embrace representatives from an earlier time, telling stories that continue to resonate. By the time the hour ends, you’re grateful not only for the time spent, and the points made — but also for the intelligent, invigorating, inspiring discussion.

Moyers & Company is on its second and final scheduled year. I don’t know what Bill Moyers plans to do next — but if, at this stage in his formidable career, Moyers can continue to make such important television, someone had better give him the opportunity to do so.

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John Lewis is a wonderful man. My son just returned from working at Comic Con in San Diego, and brought me an autographed comic book called "The March" by none other than John Lewis; he was thrilled to meet him. A treasured gift to be sure. And a wonderful tool to acquaint the younger generation with the struggles these amazing people went through. I'm old enough to remember these days and the lives that were put on the line for those enjoying freedom today. I've always felt the movie "Mississippi Burning" should be required viewing in all high school American History classes lest we forget. John Lewis is at the top of the list of those who endured so much so others after him could have a better life. In a world of so few real heros, he stands head and shoulders above the crowd!
Jul 25, 2013   |  Reply
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