Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream "in the process of becoming real," Rep. John Lewis says

(CBS News) One hundred and fifty years since the Emancipation Proclamation and fifty years after his March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "would have said, 'My dream is in the process of becoming real,'" Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. - who spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial both in 1963 and Saturday during a commemorative rally - said Sunday on "Face the Nation."

"He'd be grateful to see an African American as president of the United States: 'It's almost unreal, unbelievable,' Dr. King would have said," according to Lewis, who has called king his "mentor." "If Dr. King could speak to us, he would say, 'We've come a distance. We've made a lot of progress. You're in the process of laying down the burden of race. But we're not there yet.'"

Lewis recalled his and King's meeting in 1963 with then-President John F. Kennedy: "A. Philip Randolph, one of the leaders during that period, spoke up and said, 'Mr. President, the masses are restless... And we're going to march on Washington.' And you can tell by the body language of the president he, sort of started moving and twisting, and he said, 'Mr. Randolph, if you bring all these people to Washington, won't there be violence and chaos and disorder? We will never get a civil rights bill through the Congress.'"

Gen. Colin Powell - who was fighting in Vietnam at the time of King's immortalized "I have a dream" speech, but went on to serve as the first African-American secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - hailed King as the leader of the post-Civil War civil war, in light of Jim Crow and segregation. He bolstered Lewis's interpretation of what King would say if he were alive today.

March on Washington's 50th anniversary commemoration draws tens of thousands
Poll: Half say racial equality not yet a reality
MLK sculpture changes stalled ahead of March on Washington's 50th anniversary

"It's easy to say that, 'Well, we've still got a lot of problems.' And we do, we do," Powell said. "But we should not overlook how far we have come since 1963. I have seen things that I couldn't have imagined. I have seen the president of the United States. I was able to achieve high positions in our government.

"...If Dr. King was here, I'm quite sure he would say, 'Congratulations on all the progress that's been made, but let's keep going; the dream is not fully achieved yet," Powell continued. "And so I think we should be very proud of what we've accomplished, but we should not say, 'It's all done, it's all okay,' because it isn't."

Powell said the Florida verdict last month that acquitted George Zimmerman, the shooter who killed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, was judicially "questionable," but suggested it won't likely have "staying power" in the fight against racial profiling: "These cases come along and they blaze across the midnight sky," he said. "And then, after a period of time, they're forgotten."

Both Powell and Lewis, though, chided as an enormous blow to civil rights a Supreme Court ruling earlier this summer that struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

"I would have preferred that they not reach such a conclusion," Powell said. "They claim that there's widespread abuse and voter fraud, but nothing documents, nothing substantiates that. There isn't widespread abuse. And so these kind of procedures that are being put in place to slow the process down and make it likely that fewer Hispanics and African Americans might vote, I think are going to backfire, because these people are going to come out and do what they have to do in order to vote, and I encourage that."

Lewis said he was "shocked" at Justice Antonin Scalia's assessment that the provision the court struck down perpetuated "racial entitlement." But he specifically singled out former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who introduced the act in 1965, as having "never gotten the credit that he should have received."

"The night he gave that speech, it was the most meaningful speech any American president had made in modern time on the whole question of voting rights or civil rights," Lewis said. "And when he concluded that speech, he said, 'And we shall overcome.' Dr. King cried. I was sitting next to him; I cried. He introduced that bill and the Congress passed it. And 48 years later, the Supreme Court gutted. It put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."

Meantime, President Obama should be "more passionate" about questions of race in the country, Powell argued, like he was in his speech after the Zimmerman verdict.

"This is a problem that affects all of America, not just black America," Powell said. "It's something that is still a residual effect of our history, of the racism that existed by law, the segregation, slavery, and I think we're slowly, surely moving away from this. And it's going to change - it's going to require more change in the hearts and minds of people. But we're going to get there, I have no doubt about that."

  • Lindsey Boerma On Twitter»

    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

Comments

Follow Us

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Face on Twitter