The author and comedian remembers attending the 1963 March on Washington, and feeling a movement converge.
Black performs at the USO Tour in Kuwait in 2007. Image from DefenseLink.
Lewis Black’s comedy can be pretty shouty. OK, the man is famous for shouting. But at the core of his rants is something more than his annoyance; in addition to making us laugh, his tirades challenge those in power and often point out the absurdities of prejudice. At a recent Guernica staff meeting we watched one of his Daily Show segments, this one culminating in a montage of New Yorkers offering expletives to Governor Rick Perry in a multitude of languages (a response to Perry’s ad campaign disparaging New York). We’re not sure how it’s possible, but the piece manages to be vulgar and angry and… weirdly uplifting. Like so much of Black’s comedy, its rage is spiked with empathy.
This week we’ve been remembering the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a landmark moment in the Civil Rights Movement that brought together Dr. Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Mahalia Jackson, and a host of other speakers and performers. When we learned that a 14-year-old Lewis Black was in the crowd gathered on the Washington Mall that day, we wanted to know more about how that historical moment affected him and his work. He told us about it via email, in between his tour dates in the South.
— Rachel Riederer for Guernica
Guernica: How did you come to be at the March on Washington as a young teenager? Were there lots of other young people there?
Lewis Black: My parents were very socially aware and made sure that my brother and I paid attention to what was happening in our country and world. I grew up in Maryland just outside D.C. but have no idea how I ended up on the Mall that day. I probably went with friends, as my mother and father don’t remember going. There was quite a number of young people down there. It was a rainbow of ages all gathered together.
Guernica: What do you remember most about the people in the crowd?
Lewis Black: That they were peaceful and I think overwhelmed by the size and enormity of the moment. I was, too. It’s always nice to know you are not alone on a massive scale.
Guernica: Did you have a sense while listening to the “I Have A Dream” speech that what you were hearing would become so iconic?
Lewis Black: No, I hadn’t a clue. I was fourteen and didn’t even know what “iconic” meant at that point. I knew something huge was happening and that somehow I was a teeny tiny part of it.
Guernica: Dr. King’s speech has come to be synonymous with the March on Washington, but many other people spoke that day too. Were you particularly struck by any of the other speakers?
Lewis Black: Nope, not that I remember. He was the draw for me. I was struck most by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Their music was important to me.
Guernica: Your own work in theater and comedy is often so political—do you think your involvement in the civil rights movement influenced your interest in using entertainment to help bring about social change?
Lewis Black: Not at all, as I have never thought of my entertainment as being able to bring about social change. I am seriously always looking for the laugh. What it did make me conscious of was having empathy for those without any power in this country. That has always stuck with me.
Guernica: Today we experience these kinds of political actions with almost immediate feedback from insta-news coverage and social media—do you think these forms are helpful for protest movements? (This is another way of asking: “What’s it like to go to a march and not tweet about it the whole time? Should we try it?”)
Lewis Black: There’s no reason to tweet when you are in the midst of a great moment; they are few and far between. So pay attention to it, as you probably won’t see it again. You can always tweet later, if you’re lucky enough to be part of history and you think 140 characters can do credit to someone like Martin Luther King or to the speech he made that day.
Lewis Black is a stand-up comic, actor, and author. He is a regular contributor to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and is the author of Me of Little Faith, Nothing’s Sacred, and most recently, I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas.