Opinion

The GOP’s Civil Rights Amnesia

When John Lewis is leading, it's not a 'publicity stunt'

 Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., center,  is surrounded by reporters and supporters after the Democratic sit-over guns. ( Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When the face of your opposition on any issue is John Lewis, you need to choose your words carefully: “Publicity stunt” probably should not be the go-to phrase.

Congressman Lewis, a Democrat representing Georgia, brings with him a moral gravity because of his courageous place in the country’s progress toward equality.

But it is very clear in the response of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan to the sit-in on the floor of the House over an impasse in gun control legislation that the Republican from Wisconsin is not a student of history – that of his esteemed and respected colleague, his country or his own party.

"A publicity stunt, a fund-raising stunt," Ryan called the action by Democrats. As he adjourned the House during the protest, Ryan said that “the bottom line is despite these distractions, we did our job."

Over chants from Democrats demanding action, Ryan said, "the chair would hope that the business of the House could be conducted in a fashion that respects positively on the dignity and decorum of this institution." 

Yet, there were not too many call for such “decorum,” for example, when a speech by President Barack Obama was interrupted with a disrespectful shout of “you lie!” by a House Republican. A resolution of disapproval was passed largely along partisan lines.

 The Democrats ended their protest after more than 25 hours, but the images remain, particularly of the 76-year-old Lewis leading those gathered in a slightly altered for the occasion rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” Though even some who support gun control legislation wonder if the laws in question merited the effort, Lewis certainly has a right to recall a tradition of civil disobedience.

 As a college student, he organized sit-ins that integrated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. He was a young man in a trench coat and carrying a back pack when he joined Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader in the civil rights movement as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He spoke at the March on Washington in 1963.

Lewis was armed only with his body and spirit against the brutal power of the segregated state in the person of Alabama state troopers who cracked his skull during his peaceful march cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965 on “Bloody Sunday.”

 Civil rights legislation in the 1960s could not have been passed without Republican votes. But since, the party of Lincoln has shed black voters and a reputation for tolerance with rhetoric and actions from its leaders that seem at odds with the goals of the movement, then and now.

That approach gained Republicans a lock on Southern states and a wave of votes elsewhere, but changing demographics may have caught up with them. After losing the 2012 presidential election they vowed to change; but have they?

Republican colleagues joined Lewis for the 50th anniversary of that fateful march in Selma. Earlier this year, Ryan attended ceremonies honoring Lewis and Selma marchers with the Congressional Gold Medal, all the while refusing to bring up any legislation that would restore a key section of the Voting Rights Act Lewis marched to pass, a section that was struck down by the Supreme Court.

During the Democrats’ protest on the House floor last week, it was definitely not a good look when GOP Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, who is known for doing such things as accusing the Obama administration of being advised by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, shouted “radical Islam killed these people," while pointing to posters of gun violence victims. It got worse when he angrily shook his finger at Democrats on the floor, a video that will live despite a clunky GOP attempt to shut off cameras and coverage.

 Of course, the sit-in was political theater; it’s a tactic Republicans have engaged in on occasion. And it was expected that the GOP leader, trying to assert control, would respond. But Ryan could have disagreed on principle without ignoring or dismissing altogether the symbolism of an iconic colleague returning to an action he can lay partial claim to.

As Lewis takes a stand, Ryan can most often be seen dodging one when it comes to the presumptive presidential nominee of his Republican Party. Ryan did, however, make it clear again on Thursday that he will be supporting Donald Trump for president and, one presumes, explaining or running away from questions on what that means for his party’s outreach to minorities and civil rights.

 At least he didn’t call Lewis an “outside agitator.”

Roll Call columnist    Mary C. Curtis    has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter   @mcurtisnc3