For months, even for years, through several sessions of Congress, I wondered what will bring this body to take action. What will finally make Congress do what is right, what is just, what the people of this country have been demanding, and what is long overdue? — Congressman John Lewis
Congressman John Lewis’ call to action in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 22nd was the beginning of an extraordinary event in our nation’s Capitol. Members of Congress participated in a nonviolent occupation of the floor of the House of Representatives led by a veteran civil rights organizer and participant in the sit-in movement to desegregate Jim Crow lunch counters, Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate travel, and marches to protest the denial of the right to vote to Black citizens across the South. How refreshing to see John Lewis and his Congressional colleagues protesting the egregious fact that even in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in our nation’s history and the senseless preventable deaths by gun of tens of thousands of human beings in our nation, including children, year in and year out, Congress has refused to act to reduce the epidemic of gun violence raging across our country.
“We have lost hundreds and thousands of innocent people to gun violence. Tiny, little children. Babies. Students and teachers. Mothers and fathers. Sisters and brothers. Daughters and sons. Friends and neighbors.
“And what has this body done, Mr. Speaker? NOTHING. Not one thing. We have turned deaf ears to the blood of the innocent and the concerns of our nation. We are blind to a crisis. Mr. Speaker, where is the heart of this body? Where is our soul? Where is our moral leadership? Where is our courage?”
Congressman John Lewis grew up in segregated Troy, Alabama where he was taught not to challenge the racist Jim Crow status quo because that was just the way things were. But as a teenager he decided he couldn’t and wouldn’t spend his life afraid of getting into “good trouble.” He wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after hearing him on the radio during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King invited the “boy from Troy” to come meet him and helped spur young John Lewis on his lifelong path as a nonviolent warrior for justice who helped transform our nation. As a student leader and eventually chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) he helped organize and supported sit-ins and other student activism across the South with my generation of young activists. At age 23 he was the youngest person to speak at the 1963 March on Washington. Two years later he was brutally attacked by lawless state and local law enforcement officials and his skull was fractured on the Edmund Pettus Bridge while attempting to lead a march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. The televised images of the savage “Bloody Sunday” beatings followed by the March from Selma to Montgomery by people coming from across the nation led President Lyndon B. Johnson to call on Congress to pass what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement and in America’s continuing struggle to honor America’s dream. How sad that so many states, especially in the South, are attempting to undermine this sacred right of citizenship to vote — in every possible way today.
In 1986 John Lewis was elected to Congress to continue fighting to push America forward. He electrified the nation as he brought the same nonviolent civil disobedience tactics he used as a young civil rights leader to the House floor and led his colleagues in the sit-in condemning Congress’ inaction to reduce mass shootings and gun violence. His address to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan displayed a moral leadership and clarity that I hope will infect enough of his Congressional colleagues and galvanize millions of voters appalled by Congress’s inability to ban gun sales to people on the “no-fly” list, expand background checks, or provide other urgently needed common sense safety solutions to protect Americans including our children from relentless gun violence.
“We were elected to lead, Mr. Speaker. We must be headlights, and not taillights. We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the reality of mass gun violence in our nation. Deadly mass shootings are becoming more and more frequent. Mr. Speaker, this is a fact. It is not an opinion. We must remove the blinders. The time for silence and patience is long gone.”
The time for silence and patience is long gone. Congressmen Lewis and his colleagues have vowed to keep going with their fight as soon as the House returns from its July 4th recess. We must stand with them as they continue to get into “good trouble.” We desperately need a critical mass of leaders like Congressman Lewis, Senator Christopher Murphy, and others who joined in the House sit-in willing to be headlights and stand up to the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturing industry and their lobbyists and money and do the right thing to prevent gun violence that injures or kills a child every half hour in our gun saturated nation.
Congressman Lewis has said that some of the martyrs of the civil rights movement were “the founding fathers of the new America, a new way of doing things, a new way of life.” On this Fourth of July holiday honoring another revolutionary moment of “good trouble,” it’s time to remember how acts of civil disobedience have shaped our country and made us better throughout our history — from the Boston Tea Party, when citizens in Massachusetts illegally boarded a British ship and threw its cargo of tea into the Boston Harbor rather than pay taxes without representation, and other acts that led to the Declaration of Independence; to the Underground Railroad, with its fearless conductors like Harriet Tubman and abolitionist friends including the Quakers who helped lead to the abolition of slavery; to the women’s suffrage movement, when thousands of courageous women marched and endured arrest and jail to win the right to vote; to the civil rights movement with Charles Houston’s and Thurgood Marshall’s legal challenges to segregation and unequal public schools, bus boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and marches which led to the right to vote — gains that are slipping backwards; to the fight for LGBT equality and acknowledgement that love is love — and many more. We must encourage and support a new group of American leaders — nonviolent servant leaders — to sit in and stand up and do whatever it takes to protect and build on the progress made, resist the backwards slide in our regressive Congress, reject people spouting hate and intolerance at any group, and support the will of the majority of Americans, including a majority of gun owners, who want Congress to do their job and pass common sense safety measures to stem the deeply destructive tide of gun violence in our nation. Gun violence should no longer be tolerated and accepted as a uniquely all-American value.
As John Lewis said from the House floor: “Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way. We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something, when you have to make a little noise. When you have to move your feet. And this is the time.” Amen!
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.