Patience Is a Dirty Word

“We do not want our freedom gradually,” John Lewis said, “but we want to be free now!”

(Danny Lyon / Magnum)

On August 27, 1963, John Lewis returned to his room at the Hilton on 16th and K Streets in downtown Washington, D.C. Just 23 years old, but already a veteran activist, Lewis was poised to speak at the March on Washington the next day, as the chair of the irrepressible young revolutionaries of the civil-rights movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Someone delivered an advance copy of Lewis’s speech to Patrick O’Boyle, the archbishop of Washington, who was giving the march’s opening invocation. O’Boyle was horrified to see that Lewis intended to call patience a “dirty and nasty word.” O’Boyle called the White House. He called the march organizer Bayard Rustin. O’Boyle threatened to pull out, Rustin told Lewis, because he found the line offensive to the Catholic Church—Catholics believed in the word patience.

Lewis agreed to remove the “patience” line, at Rustin’s urging. But demands for changes kept coming from the white and Black scions of gradual racial change, including U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins. Lewis agreed to more line edits. But he kept the message.

“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient,” Lewis said that day. “We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!”

Lewis then exhumed the American Revolution. “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation,” he said. “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.”

John Lewis, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, speaking at the Lincoln Memorial to participants in the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 (Bettmann / Getty)

Lewis did not live to see the revolution of 1776 completed. He died at the age of 80 on Friday. But he did live to see people get into and stay in the streets in nearly every city, every village, every hamlet of this nation this spring and summer. He did live to see perhaps the largest anti-racist mobilization in American history. Lewis did live to see 76 percent of respondents in a Monmouth University poll from June call racial and ethnic discrimination a big problem, up 25 percent from 2015.

Sometimes the most brilliant speeches enter the world when many people are not ready to hear them. On August 28, 1963, many Americans were not ready to hear John Lewis speak about completing the revolution of 1776. Are Americans ready for the message the 23-year-old Lewis offered now?

It is one thing to recognize racism. It is yet another thing to be anti-racist. Are Americans recognizing the colossus and fixing to run away from it out of fear of getting into trouble? Or are Americans readying, like Lewis, to get into trouble, “good trouble”?

Will Americans support anti-racist policy solutions that match the scale of the problem? Will Americans get big, think big, act big?

Big like reparations. Big like basic incomes. Big like defunding the police. Big like Medicare for All. Big like automatic voter registration and online voting. Big like need-based school funding. Big like canceling all student debt. Big like the Green New Deal. Big like racial inequity becoming the marker of racist policy.

Or are Americans thinking smaller about this big problem? Are they scared of the upcoming election? Are they more worried about conservative backlash than the everyday lashes of racist policy disproportionately infecting and killing Black and brown people? Are they more fearful of radical social change than the radical changes befalling families when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents kick down their door?

Will anti-racists again be told to be patient and wait? Because there is always something else to wait for: Wait until after Donald Trump is defeated in November. Wait until Democrats win the Senate in 2022. Wait until Joe Biden’s second term. Wait until her presidency. Wait. Be patient. Change takes time. Change is gradual.

John Lewis planned to open his March on Washington speech declaring SNCC’s opposition to President John F. Kennedy’s civil-rights bill, which was weak on police brutality. He ended up declaring SNCC’s tepid support. And his call for a “serious revolution” was changed to a call for a “social revolution.”

Left: White segregationist demonstrators protesting at the admission of the Little Rock Nine to Central High School in 1959. Right: Walter Ring (left), who drove from the Richmond, Virginia, area to protest the Faith and Politics Institute's delegation to observe how residents of Farmville, Virginia, are dealing with racial integration, discusses his views with the local lawyer A. P. Jackson. Prince Edward County closed its public schools from 1959 to 1964 instead of integrating them. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group / Getty; Chris Maddaloni / Roll Call / Getty)

Lewis called for immediate equality, challenging both the calls for gradual equality and the resurgent calls for permanent inequality in 1963. In January, eight months before the March on Washington, Alabama Governor George Wallace had declared, during his inaugural address: “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Permanent inequality, gradual equality, and immediate equality: This triangle of racial thought formed during slavery. Back then, there were three main policy positions on slavery: permanent enslavement, gradual emancipation, and immediate emancipation. By the 1820s, antislavery Americans were typically advocating for gradual emancipation (and for colonizing emancipated Black people out of the United States). At the American Colonization Society’s Fourth of July gathering in Boston in 1829, William Lloyd Garrison called on all residents of the free states “to demand a gradual abolition of slavery.”

Ten days later, Garrison, a young white newspaper editor, sat in a Black Baptist church and witnessed a celebration of the anniversary of England’s abolition of the slave trade. When a white clergyman preached about abolition being neither wise nor safe without a long period qualifying Black people for freedom, “a very audible murmur ran round the house,” Garrison remembered.

Boston’s Black abolitionists at the time, such as Maria Stewart, were calling for nothing less than freedom, or immediate emancipation. They knew from experience how gradual-emancipation policies prolonged slavery, effectively prolonging the status quo.

After the American Revolution, most northern states passed gradual-emancipation laws that left some Black people enslaved for decades. For example, hundreds of Black Americans were still enslaved in Pennsylvania in 1850, 70 years after the state passed its Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.

While the success of gradualism in reducing injustice often attracts people, the failure of gradualism to eliminate injustice often alienates people. Many white abolitionists, such as Garrison, traveled through the way station of gradual emancipation, which in pro-slavery early America seemed revolutionary.

But Garrison did not stay in the way station for long. He came across the widely circulated pamphlet of the English Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick. “Gradual abolition has been … the very master-piece of Satanic policy,” she wrote in 1824. Garrison also came across the Presbyterian minister George Bourne’s 1816 pamphlet that argued, “Moderation against sin is an absurdity.”

But nothing quickened Garrison’s alienation from gradualism like the murmur of the Black congregants. The murmur rang in his ears as he walked home from the Black church that night in 1829. In his Fourth of July address 10 days earlier, he had termed it a “wild vision” to believe that enslaved Africans could immediately be freed. His mind churned like his feet. Was revolution really wild? Or was it wilder to stand on some middle ground between sinful slavery and righteous freedom?

“I saw there was nothing to stand upon,” Garrison later said. Slavery was a sin. As a sin, it needed to end immediately. “No valid excuse can be given for the continuance of the evil a single hour,” Garrison would write before 1829 ended.

Left: Police officers attack civil-rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, who were attempting to begin a 50-mile march to Montgomery to protest race discrimination in voter registration in 1965. Right: A police officer holds down a protester while another sprays pepper spray as they clash during a Black Lives Matter protest against police brutality and racism in the United States in May 2020. (Bettmann / Getty; Joseph Prezioso / AFP / Getty)

But Americans were not ready for a young Garrison, like Americans were not ready for a young Lewis in 1963, like Americans may not be ready for immediate equality today. Fear restrains some Americans from supporting the transference of police funding to education, public health, affordable housing, and anti-poverty programs. Donald Trump keeps fearmongering about waves of “violent crime in our cities” because “the police are afraid to do anything.” Fear is both the producer and protector of police violence—fear of unpoliced Black people.

In 1861, the editor of the Chicago Times argued that abolishing slavery would send 2 or 3 million “semi-savages” to northern states to become “a pestilence more destructive than ever yet walked the earth.” Even the antislavery editor of the Chicago Tribune admitted that year that “the greatest ally of slaveholders in this country is the apprehension in the Northern mind that if the slaves were liberated, they would become roaming, vicious vagabonds; that they would overrun the North.”

The same racist fears manifested during the defense of Jim Crow. Lawyers argued the Brown v. Board of Education case for a second time on December 8, 1953. At a White House dinner around that time, President Dwight Eisenhower reportedly told Chief Justice Earl Warren that he could understand why white southerners wanted to make sure “their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big black buck.”

In the racist imagination, the police officer today serves as the segregationist and slaveholder of yesterday. The fear of immediate change today is the fear of immediate change yesterday.

But the gradualists of today admonish the gradualism of yesterday, condemning all those who opposed immediate emancipation, all those who told Lewis to tone down his speech in 1963. Reformists don’t age as well as revolutionaries. How could anyone say in 1829 that slavery should live another hour? How could anyone not have demanded a “scorched-earth policy” that burned “Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently,” as Lewis was prevented from saying at the March on Washington?

A century from now, when almost all of us are dead, if we don’t act with urgency and boldness, I can only imagine what our descendants will be saying about us. How could we allow the evil of racial inequity to live another hour? How could we not support a scorched-earth policy to eliminate racial injustice? The revolutionaries of today will age well, as those revolutionaries of yesterday aged well.

To be anti-racist is to believe in the word now. Patience is a dirty word to those incarcerated by inequity. Patience is a nasty word to those with injustice kneeing down on their neck.

“We are tired,” Lewis bellowed at the March on Washington. “We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.”