Congressman Lewis’ call to action in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 22 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?”
Lewis grew up in segregated Troy, Ala. 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) Lewis 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, Ala. 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.
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.
Congressmen Lewis and his colleagues have vowed to keep going with their fight as soon as the House returns from its July 4 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.
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.”
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 www.childrensdefense.org