“Where is the heart of this body? … Where is our moral leadership? Where is our courage?”
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Rep. John Lewis, the 29-year Georgia congressman who led the civil rights movement of the 1960s with Dr. Martin Luther King and other black Americans, led the first ever sit-in
in the House of Representatives with fellow Democrats this week. The target was legislative indifference to America’s long and tragic epidemic of gun violence following the slaying of 49 people
in a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., June 12.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose Republican party largely blocks legislation aimed at preventing people who are likely to use guns to commit murder and other crimes to gain access to them, attempted to silence Lewis and his colleagues by ordering the chamber’s official broadcasting cameras shut off. But lawmakers circumvented the blackout by live-streaming the sit-in with their smartphones.
Here’s what Lewis said at the start of the protest, which earned our admiration and made him our Truthdigger of the Week.
For months, even for years, through several sessions of Congress, I wondered what would bring this body to take action. What would finally make Congress do what is right, what is just, what the people of this country have been demanding and what is long overdue? 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 a deaf ears—we have turned deaf ears to the blood of the innocent and the concern 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?
Those who work on bipartisan solution are pushed aside. Those who pursue commonsense improvement are beaten down. Reason is criticized. Obstruction is praised. Newtown, Aurora, Charleston, Orlando—what is the tipping point? Are we blind? Can we see? How many more mothers, how many more fathers need to shed tears of grief before we do something? 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 the fight. It is not an opinion. We must remove the blinders. The time for silence and patience is long gone. We’re calling on the leadership of the House to bring commonsense gun control legislation to the House floor. Give us a vote! Let us vote! We came here to do our job! We came here to work!
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The American people are demanding action. Do we have the courage? Do we have raw courage to make at least a down payment on ending gun violence in America? We can no longer wait. We can no longer be patient. So today we come to the well of the House to dramatize the need for action—not next month, not next year, but now, today! 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, we have to make a little noise, when you have to move your feet. This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more. The time for silence is over.
John Lewis was the youngest of the “Big Six” leaders of prominent civil rights organizations that orchestrated the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and other major actions during the civil rights movement. He was also chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during some of the movement’s most volatile years, organizing sit-ins, boycotts and nonviolent protests in the fight for equality and black suffrage, and was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders—activists who rode buses into the segregated South in the early 1960s to uphold Supreme Court decisions ruling segregated public buses unconstitutional.
At age 21, Lewis was the first of the Freedom Riders to be assaulted when he tried to enter a whites-only waiting room. “We were determined not to let any act of violence keep us from our goal. We knew our lives could be threatened, but we had made up our minds not to turn back,” he said decades after the attack.
Lewis spent 2½ years in Jimmy Carter’s presidential administration as associate director of ACTION, a federal agency that sponsored and organized domestic and international volunteers, including the Peace Corps, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and Volunteers in Service to America, which later became AmeriCorps. In 1986, he began his tenure in the House of Representatives and has won re-election 14 times. He opposed the Bill Clinton-supported NAFTA, the 1991 Gulf War and later George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and warrantless wiretapping.