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Don Lemon Squares Up the Past 50 Years

As America approaches the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom— an event that placed not only race, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the national stage— it is important to remember the people who made it possible. Their hard work will be recognized in the CNN documentary “We Were There: The March on Washington— An Oral History,” which will be airing Friday night, August 23 at 10 p.m. EST and hosted by Don Lemon.

Many of the telephone operators, sign makers and event planners, who made sure some 200,000 people were able to make a bus, train or plane to Washington, DC, will finally have their say about one of America’s landmark moments. JETMag.com spoke with Lemon this week about the documentary and how the lessons learned in 1963 can be reconciled against the present-day tribulations that plague the African-American community.

JET: Don, you were recently embroiled in a controversy after making comments about things African-American youth can do to be more productive members of society, including common-sense advice, like stop sagging your pants, stop littering and stop using the N-word. Were you surprised at how people reacted?

Don Lemon: I was surprised. What I was talking about was not how to end racism. But any individual or group can always take certain actions to better themselves. I’m surprised that so many people took it out of context. But I felt justified when, afterward, Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga), the only living speaker from the March on Washington, said this to me about the different marches he attended across the country. He said: “Don, I wore three-piece suits no matter how hot it was. If I died, was beaten or went to jail. I wanted to go to jail with dignity.”

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John Lewis (D-Ga) was the chair of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in 1963. He is the only surviving speaker from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Photo Courtesy of CNN.

JET: The documentary spoke about how Dr. King asked John Lewis to cool down his speech, which many feared would cause Blacks to riot. Similarly, many African-Americans felt your message was too harsh and that you had aired our dirty laundry. What lessons did you take away from Lewis’ consent to change his speech?

Lemon: Everything is negotiable. You have to realize that there is a time and a place for everything. Dr. King wanted to show that African-Americans can get together and peacefully demonstrate and use peaceful resistance. Everything is a dance and a negotiation. Our dirty laundry needs to be aired, but… It is already being aired every day when men walk around with their underwear showing.

JET: From your research about the March, what impressed you the most?

Lemon: I was impressed by the courage that people took to do what they had to do. I was impressed that no one used any disgusting language. They did it in a peaceful, respectful, dignified manner. The documentary talked about three gentlemen who had the courage to walk a highway in Alabama in order to get to the March. That is unbelievable to me. Our worries pale in comparison. We sit around complaining about silly things. Stop it. Wake up!

JET: The documentary also highlighted Bayard Rustin— an openly gay, Black man in 1963— who was tasked with organizing the entire March on Washington. What does that tell America about the place of homosexuals in the civil rights movement?

Lemon: In this documentary, we give Bayard Rustin his due. He is also posthumously getting his Presidential Medal of Freedom in November. I was impressed by Bayard Rustin. As a gay man there is a certain freedom, a courage, and a boldness that happens by default, when you say, “I may as well be who I am because I’m going to face opposition no matter what.” What heartened me is how he bluffed his whole way through it. [There is a part of the documentary where the Mall is empty and he is asked by the news media if people will actually show up. He takes out some papers, studies them, and says, “We’re right on schedule.” Later he admits those pages were blank] I get that more than you know. Fake it until you make it.

JET: Do you think that courage— to be open about his sexuality— also helped him gain the courage to attempt the impossible task of inviting and planning an unprecedented event for hundreds of thousands of people?

Lemon: Partly yes. It’s like, why not? If you don’t have to deal with challenges or discrimination and you are privileged, you carry yourself differently no matter what your race is. When you deal with bias constantly, after awhile it’s the norm, so you can do things boldly and think, “Why not, they are already talking about me.”

JET: The documentary showed how actor and activist Harry Belafonte played a huge role in presenting a cultural contingency at the March. He was responsible for making sure that celebrities, like Charlton Heston, were there so that the event wasn’t just viewed as political. Recently, Belafonte attacked modern-day celebrities, like Jay Z, for not being physically involved in current injustices. What can our celebrities learn from Belafonte’s actions at the March in 1963?

Lemon: We all like to party, everybody says profane words sometimes, but maybe the people who have the attention of the young people now should get together and preach more of a [positive] message instead of a message of misogyny or dirty words. There is a certain responsibility that comes with [being able to] shape the minds, the thoughts and words of young people. I don’t know if there needs to be a public resolution between Harry Belafonte and Jay Z. They can have divergent points but it does not mean they both aren’t valid. I don’t know that much about their beef. I think if there is any discussion anywhere, I think that is positive. They need to figure out how they can elevate the conversation and make things better for the Black community and young people.

JET: After calling you a “Slave” on Twitter, are you and Russell Simmons resolving your beef privately?

Lemon: We have spoken. He apologized, and I accept his apology. There is no grudge. I’m not going to say bad things about him. He’s [agreed] to come on my show [in the near future] if we can work it out scheduling wise. I’m not going to invite him on television to argue. The question is, what do we do now? How do we elevate the conversation? I’m not going to rehash [what has already been said].

JET: Ultimately, what do you want people to take away from this documentary?

Lemon: When I asked John Lewis what he wanted for generations after him, he summed it up this way: “I want people to have passion.”

For me, In order for any group to survive, there has to be a coalition of the willing. I want all people, but especially young people, to learn about our history, look in the mirror and ask “Who do you think you are?”