Standing Up By Sitting Down

I felt the sting of tears springing up in my eyes suddenly when I heard him say it, “Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way. We’ve been quiet too long. Now is the time to get in the way. We will be silent no more. The time for silence is over.”

The speaker was Democratic Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, as he led a “sit in” on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, asking only for an up and down vote on some fairly modest gun control legislation. The tears came because this is hardly the first time that John Lewis has had to “sit down to stand up.”

He was chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. He organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. He became one of the thirteen original Freedom Riders. He was arrested twenty four times in the non-violent struggle for equal justice. He was beaten many times, once having his skull fractured when state troopers charged demonstrators with night sticks.

Yesterday, he said that he could never imagine, in those days, that he would one day have to lead similar sit-ins in the well of the United States House of Representatives out of frustration that the Republican leadership of that House would not even allow a vote on a bill which would simply render those persons on a No Fly List ineligible to buy firearms. “No fly, no buy.” Can you believe that anyone would oppose such a measure?

Well, they did. And Paul Ryan called this protest action a publicity stunt. The irony was no doubt lost on him that this was exactly what the racist politicians of my youth called the civil rights demonstrations which John Lewis and his colleagues so courageously led. After hours of speeches and singing by the protesters, Ryan convened the House, called for a vote on an unrelated bill and adjourned the House of Representatives until after the July 4 holiday. July 4 — Independence Day. Independence for what? Apparently Independence to carry assault weapons of mass destruction and slaughter children at will.

“Sometimes you have to sit down to stand up,” Congressman Lewis said.

“What will happen eventually,” broadcaster Luke Russert asked him yesterday. “Will you not be moved?”

Lewis looked at him through narrowed eyes, “Like a tree…planted by the waterside…We shall not be moved!”

And the tears came again.

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