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‘We Have to Redeem the Soul of America.’ John Lewis on What’s Changed and What Hasn’t Since the March on Washington

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On the day of the March on Washington, I was very excited about being able to speak to the crowd about civil rights. I was ready. A. Philip Randolph introduced me as “young John Lewis, national chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.” I said to myself, “This is it. I must do my best.” I looked to my right, I looked to my left, and I looked straight ahead, and I went for it.

I think often about “young John Lewis.” Today, I would tell him, “You got out there. You pushed and you pulled. You helped lead a movement to make things better for this generation and for generations yet unborn.” I come in contact with a lot of young people, a lot of young children. These kids are so smart and so gifted—if we had been that smart and that gifted, we would be much farther down the road.

We have come far since there, but there is still such a distance to travel. So many of our people are suffering. When we come to a point in our nation where little children, babies, are being taken from their parents and put in cages, I don’t think history will be kind to us.

Step Into History: Learn how to experience the 1963 March on Washington in virtual reality

I have never witnessed anything like what we’re going through today. Not during the 1960s, in spite of everything that we came through—the arrests, the jailings, the beatings. Something is happening in America today that is frightening. What is happening is a threat to our democracy, and sometimes I fear that we are in the process of losing it.

But we must never ever lose hope, we must keep the faith, keep building and working hard to create what Dr. King and what others called the “Beloved Community.” We have to redeem the soul of America.

Lewis is the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District and a member of the 2017 TIME 100

This article is part of a special project about equality in America today. Read more about The March, TIME’s virtual reality re-creation of the 1963 March on Washington and sign up for TIME’s history newsletter for updates.

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