The Greatest Speech by an American Icon: How 23-year-old John Lewis Delivered a Masterpiece

The Greatest Speech by an American Icon: How 23-year-old John Lewis Delivered a Masterpiece

July 22, 2020

The August sun stood high in the sky above the podium like bright stage lights. The heat magnified by the stakes of the moment. Despite the outdoor setting, the group wore their best suits and ties as they looked out on the National Mall.  

Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, he saw two hundred and fifty thousand people supporting the movement. The crowd waited to hear from Martin Luther King Jr.  

On a day when “I have a dream” would be etched in the tablets of history, another man knew that this was his moment. It was August 28, 1963, and John Lewis at the age of 23 was ready to seize the microphone.

He was ready to shake the nation from its slumber.

He straightened his tie as the introduction began. “I have the pleasure to present to this great audience, young John Lewis.” He shook the hands of the men he walked past. Looking down at the speech in his left hand he unfolded it, placed it on the podium, and took the breath that would fuel one of the finest speeches in American history.  

It was 1963. It could have been 2020.

“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of.” (:31)

A stunned crowd. How could this man tell them they had nothing to be proud of? They showed up. They protested. Where was the thanks they felt owed? They did not cheer or clap as they stood in shock.

Silence.

The crowd stood in complete silence for the first sixty seconds of his speech. They listened closely to understand. They wanted that answer. They needed that answer.

John Lewis hooked the crowd.

The first fifteen seconds ticked by and people still listened.

Failure to hook the audience causes more failed speeches than anything else.

Those first fifteen seconds make or break a speech. Audiences tune out if the first fifteen seconds fail to capture their attention. John Lewis knew this and he learned from the great speakers of the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King Jr. to prevent this failure. When those men spoke, he felt strong emotion. When those men spoke, he wanted to listen. When those men spoke, he felt inspiration and the need to join the cause for freedom.

That was why he succeeded on this day. John Lewis recreated that emotion by embracing Performative Speaking philosophy and using the necessary tools.

This philosophy helped him to create the type of powerful and timeless speech this moment demanded. Words alone would not achieve this. He needed to tell a timeless story with a powerful message of action that left the audience with a feeling they would never forget.

Few speeches qualify as timeless. Timeless speeches inspire people in the moment they are given but continue to be referenced and used as an inspiration for generations down the line. However, the vast majority of speeches fall into either a specific or a general approach. Neither approach will create a timeless speech.

The specific approach focuses on a specific problem and audience at a specific time. This can be effective at the moment but gives the speech a short window of effectiveness. Once that problem has been addressed, the speech loses relevance.

The general approach can be effective to raise awareness but often lacks a clear call to action or reason to care at the moment. For example, climate change too often has been framed in a general way. Due to this many people do not feel the need to take meaningful action in the present.  

This leaves the speaker facing a dilemma:

  1. Specific and soon forgotten
  2. General and no impact

Good speakers choose one of these approaches and do it well. That is why they are only good speakers. They accept the premise that they can only choose option 1 or 2.

Great speakers choose option 3. Do both. This is what John Lewis did in 1963.

John Lewis used the following tools that will be discussed throughout this article to create a timeless speech:

  • A strong theme applicable both in the moment and in general
  • Global versus specific examples throughout the speech
  • Rhetorical questions that apply both in 1963 and still today in 2020
  • Historical references that frame it both as a current battle but part of a larger war
  • Strong ending hook that apply both in 1963 and throughout the ongoing civil rights movement

John Lewis embraced these tools and executed them flawlessly. His speech perfectly exemplifies Performative Speaking. Words alone are not timeless.

Words that create emotions are timeless.

Theme  

The theme he chose demonstrated the appeal to emotion: Patience versus action. He weaved this idea throughout his speech but the strongest line on this idea was when his voice rose and trembled as he said “How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.” (5:02)

Timelessness.

The idea of freedom embraces both the global and the specific. All people want to be free. The African-American community on August 28, 1963, wanted to be free. The question posed by John Lewis on that day still applies today. Not only in America for minorities but across the world.  

People throughout history have said “How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.” People continue to say those words. These words hold true power across all of human history and geography.

Rhetorical questions

It was far from the only rhetorical question asked by John Lewis on that day. An entire block of the speech asked rhetorical questions. They applied at that moment, they applied in 1990, and they apply today. Specific and global.

One of the most memorable series of questions raised by John Lewis asked where was his political party.

But what political leader can stand up and say, ‘my party is the party of principles’?

For the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington? (3:29)

This series of questions could be asked today in America and across the world. John Lewis delivered a perfect series of questions. He delivered it with the perfect tone, pacing, and volume. He used rhetorical questions to create emotion in the audience. The questions were perfect but not what the people would remember. The people would remember how the questions and speech made them feel.  

Historical Context

Not only did he use these rhetorical questions to appeal to the specific and global audience but he framed it naturally in a historical context. The 1963 march is an extension of the 1776 American Revolution when the thirteen colonies announced their independence.. This civil rights movement is a battle in the greater revolution for freedom that began a long time ago.  

John Lewis builds momentum in this section of his speech. He builds power like the maestro guiding his orchestra.

Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution. (5:30)

As he builds towards his specific call to action, he has framed the struggle in the broader terms by embracing the revolution of 1776. This is how a speaker can make an idea and moment both specific and global. He tied it into an event nearly 200 years before this speech.  He builds in pacing and rhythm as he says,

For in the Delta in Mississippi, in southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and all over this nation, the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom. (5:45)

Ending Hook

Not only has John Lewis achieved both the global and specific appeal with this historical approach but he tied it back into his very first line where he hooked the audience: Jobs and freedom. This is the big payoff for why they listened. This is how he empowered the audience.

This is how he gave them purpose and thanked them for listening.

As he moved through this final section of his speech he picked up the cadence in his voice. He spoke faster. With fire in his voice he shook the crowd and the nation:

Wake Up America! Wake Up! For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient. (7:11)

Silence.

He gathered his notes, walked back to his seat, and listened to the roar of the crowd build as they felt his message in their core. Two years later John Lewis would walk across the bridge in Selma where he would be beaten, suffer a skull fracture, and be left for dead.  

People remember this day as “Bloody Sunday.”

John Lewis is remembered as a civil rights icon, United States Congressman, and American Hero. He should also be remembered for this speech in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

His legacy is monumental. His words echo in eternity.

Maybe one day, they will no longer need to be said but for now:

“How long can we be patient?  We want our freedom and we want it now”

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