Interview with Courtland Cox


Courtland Cox:

I think the, the politi—the, the, the real question about John Lewis' speech ah centered on the role Kennedy wanted to play in the March on Washington and the light he wanted to be seen in at that particular point. The fact of the matter is Kennedy wanted to speak at the March on Washington and was only through the, ah insistence of Bayard Rustin and some others that he did not speak at the march on Washington. Then the whole question came to whether Kenne-, the people received came to Kennedy, whether Kennedy received the group before or after the March on Washington. Symbolically if they received him before the March, then they would report to the group on what Kennedy said. If they rece—he received them after, he would be, the group would be reporting to Kennedy at what went on at the March on Washington so that was a whole play on that. But I think the real question about John's speech was the whole question of how Kennedy wanted to be perceived in terms of the black community because you remember Kennedy came to, to, to the Presidency, Office of Presidency ah, on a lot of votes from the black community and he wanted to be perceived as someone in front of this, allowing it, wanting it, encouraging it. And John's speech ah was the only speech at the March on Washington that criticized the Kennedy administration for lack of civil rights enforcement because the SNCC people were being brutalized in the South.** And he stated that and he stated that they were, he was going to march through the South as Sherman, there was the image of violence in that. Um, the Kennedy people didn't want that so what they did was Kennedy called up Archbishop O'Boyle who was the bishop of Washington ah and said to him I want John Lewis' speech changed. Archbishop O'Boyle called, ah, A. Philip Randolph and Randolph called Bayard Rustin and they came to us about changing it on the two points, that is to say, they criticized the Kennedy administration for lack of enthusiasm in enforcing civil rights law, and the whole question of alluding to violence, even though it's historical violence, ah, the, the allusion was too much in 1963. So what, what ah Bishop O'Boyle said was he wanted a change or they were going to withdraw from the March on Washington. We refused to change it and in fact ah, told Archbishop O'Boyle that he could leave but it wasn't, you know, that was his problem. Ah then Bayard, after we were adamant in not changing it, Bayard went to A. Philip Randolph and Randolph said, you know I have waited twenty years for this, what was it, ‘41, ‘63, OK, twenty-two years for this March on Washington; please let us have unity at this last moment. And it was only because of that plea from Randolph in terms of the whole generational thing, the whole historical perspective, that we agreed to, to make some changes, but I think the basic change in John's speech came from the Kennedys who did not want to be criticized in, in this ah arena.