John Lewis has long defied business as usual. He braved white hatred in 1960 when he sat at a segregated lunch counter in Nashville. He was beaten to a pulp by racist cops in 1965 at the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
So in a sense it was no big deal yesterday when the 76-year-old congressman brought House business as usual to a screeching halt. After you’ve put your life on the line in the pursuit of justice, you’ll hardly feel fear at the prospect of defying gun manufacturers and their Republican lackeys. As Lewis said in the early hours of his organized sit-in, “Sometimes you have to get in the way.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan called it a “stunt” — this, from the same guy who has endorsed a stunt candidate, a proto-fascist carnival barker, for the highest office in the land — but given the fact that Sandy Hook and Orlando and all the bloodbaths in between have failed to prompt Congress to do a blessed thing, it is no “stunt” to stop the clock and take a stand for sanity.
And if the Republicans prefer to thumb their nose at the American people — 90 percent of whom want to expand background checks; 85 percent of whom want to bar the sale of guns to anyone on the terror watch and no-fly lists — then fine. If they want to look like useful idiots for the gun lobby, if they want to shut off the C-Span cameras (a futile act of censorship in the era of social media), then fine. If they want to adjourn and traipse off for the holidays, refusing to even consider any votes for gun reform, then fine. John Lewis has exposed them for who and what they are.
One exiting Republican yelled, “We’re going to have a drink and a cigar. Enjoy the protest.” There you have it. Ten thousand gun murders a year, a river of blood that no other western nation can match, and the Republican response is a drink and a cigar.
John Lewis’ response is rooted in a tactic he was taught in childhood. He mentioned it in his ’98 book, “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” Bear with me. You’ll get the metaphor.
Lewis was a sharecropper’s son. His family and relatives lived in shacks that were so fragile, strong storms threatened to yank them from their foundations. Lewis recalled one particular storm, which struck at a time when only one adult was around, his Aunt Seneva:
“As the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside …. The wind was howling now, and the house began to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared. And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then, a corner of the room began lifting up ….
“That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Then she had us walk as a group to the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as another end of the house began to lift. And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.
“More than half a century has passed since that day, and it has struck me more than once over the many years that our society is not unlike the children in that house, rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at time as if they might fly apart. It seemed that way in the 1960s …. But the people of conscience never left the house …. They did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was weakest.
“But we knew another storm would come and we’d have to do it all over again. And we did. And we still do, all of us. You and I. Children holding hands — that is America to me.”
For Lewis, it still is. He said yesterday, “The time is always right to do right. Our time is now.” Yes indeed. In those moments when the storm is strongest and the house is weakest, a firm stand is far more laudable than a drink and a cigar.
Meanwhile, the Republican presidential candidate is off on a fascinating foray. It’s common for White House aspirants to fly overseas during a campaign, but this is surely the first time that anyone has sought to buttress his foreign policy creds by inspecting a Scotland golf course. I guess that vital matters of national security hinge on whether he’s right to charge his guests $1,200 a night for a room.
Talk about stunts.