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Just days after the chairman of Gun Appreciation Day tried to misappropriate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the always execrable Rush Limbaugh pointed both barrels at the civil rights movement. Just in time for the weekend jointly marking King's birthday and President Obama's second inauguration, Limbaugh asked:

"If a lot of African-Americans back in the '60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma?  If John Lewis, who says he was beat upside the head, if John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?"
Now, Congressman Lewis didn't "say" he was "beat upside the head" on March 7, 1965; any American can watch the video of the vicious attack by Alabama state troopers. Regardless, Lewis responded to Limbaugh's obscenity in exactly the dignified way all Americans should by now have to come to expect from him:
"Our goal in the Civil Rights Movement was not to injure or destroy but to build a sense of community, to reconcile people to the true oneness of all humanity. African Americans in the '60s could have chosen to arm themselves, but we made a conscious decision not to. We were convinced that peace could not be achieved through violence. Violence begets violence, and we believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means. We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense."
To put it another way, for John Lewis the answer to the atrocities of the segregationists was love, not guns. But we didn't need Friday's statement from Congressman Lewis to remind us of that eternal lesson of the civil rights struggle. As he showed four years ago, Lewis is its living embodiment.

On May 9, 1961, Freedom Rider John Lewis was viciously beaten in a whites-only waiting room at the Rock Hill bus station. In February 2009—48 years after Lewis sustained a fractured skull in the assault—his attacker Elwin Wilson came forward and apologized to Georgia Congressman Lewis. As ABC News reported:

"I'm so sorry about what happened back then," Wilson said breathlessly.

"It's OK. I forgive you," Lewis responded before a long-awaited hug.

For Lewis, who in the intervening years became a U.S. representative from Georgia, the apology was an unexpected symbol of the change in time and hearts.

"I never thought this would happen," he told "GMA." "It says something about the power of love, of grace, the power of the people being able to say, 'I'm sorry,' and move on. And I deeply appreciate it. It's very meaningful for me."

As Lewis explained in a joint appearance with Wilson on CNN:

Continue reading below the fold.

"He said he wanted to apologize, that he was sorry, and I said, 'I forgive you.'  And I don't have any bitterness or hatred, because it was in keeping with what we believed it, that we should have that we should have the capacity and the ability to forgive, that love is much stronger than hate. And it was very moving and touching for me for him to come to Washington and say, 'I'm sorry for what I did.'"

Later that year, Wilson and Lewis, the brutalizer and the brutalized, were honored with the Common Ground award at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. "It is never too late to make things right," Lewis said that night about the man he now calls "my friend."

When it comes to gun violence, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk have no authority to speak for anyone, let alone John Lewis. Lewis is that rarest of American heroes, one who sacrificed and suffered and bled so all Americans might be more free. When he reminds his Republican colleagues on the floor of House of Representatives and his fellow Democrats at the 2012 party convention about Jim Crow and voter suppression, John Lewis isn't reciting ancient history, but offering a page from his own life.

Last March, PBS viewers were reminded of that tragic past last year in the most heart-breaking fashion. In an episode of "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.," Lewis learned an almost unbearable irony about his efforts—including the Selma march—to enable and protect African-Americans' right to vote. An emotional Lewis discovered (around the 47:00 minute mark below) that his great-great-grandfather's was briefly able to vote in Alabama in the late 1860s before the iron fist of Jim Crow came crashing down.

"Knowing that a member of my family registered and voted in Alabama a hundred years before I did, before my mother and my father, my grandparents...it's just incredible. This is too much."

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, the nation's first African-American president, Barack Obama, takes the oath of office in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the debt of gratitude we owe John Lewis—for helping to expand the circle of liberty and enable what Lincoln called a "new birth of freedom"—can never be fully repaid. But his triumphs must be protected, his message of love over violence revered. As the new President Obama put it to Lewis following his first swearing-in four years ago:

"Because of you, John."

Originally posted to Jon Perr on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 05:16 PM PST.

Also republished by Shut Down the NRA.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I Think an Important Factor in the Nonviolent Ap- (5+ / 0-)

    proach was the overwhelming numbers and power of the white majority and the power structure.

    As people said, maybe it's from Gandhi, once you become violent, you put the machine into its area of greatest comfort and expertise. They know exactly how to handle you when you're violent. But be peaceful, nonviolent, respectful, and you push the machine far out of its element. It doesn't know how to deal with dignified moral protest.

    People were still being lynched, shot and beaten to death in these times. 2 years after Lewis was beaten at the bus station, the church bombing in Birmingham 3 weeks after the March on Washington "Dream" speech killed several little girls, and the next summer the 3 northern voter registration activists were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The dragging of waterways in search of their bodies unearthed numbers of unanticipated dead Blacks.

    I heard in those days many times that nonviolence was the only chance Blacks had, much of the civil rights leadership believed.

    Thanks for the diary; I had not known of Lewis meeting this man.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 05:56:57 PM PST

  •  I was fortunate not only to have met... (7+ / 0-)

    ...John Lewis when he was a young man in 1964 but also to have received (along with others) additional training from him for Freedom Summer in Mississippi where we registered black voters. Those who did register were brave souls because, as you've pointed out, beatings and murder were the way any opposition to Jim Crow was met by in those days.

    He remains one of the few people I call true heroes.

    Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

    by Meteor Blades on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 07:06:50 PM PST

    •  And, by the way, terrific diary. n/t (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      princesspat, WakeUpNeo

      Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

      by Meteor Blades on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 08:06:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Oh my, I did not know you did that, MB. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      princesspat, WakeUpNeo

      Yes, the Hon. Rep. John Lewis is a lion of a man. I once had the opportunity to shake his hand and to thank him for his life work, and I felt privileged merely by that momentary proximity to deep courage and grace. He has immense presence.

      Some DKos series & groups worth your while: Black Kos, Native American Netroots, KosAbility, Monday Night Cancer Club. If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

      by peregrine kate on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 08:24:27 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I wrote about this in more detail... (0+ / 0-)

        ...in Mississippi Turning in 2008. An excerpt:

        Every day, two-by-two, we went door to door cajoling black men and women to gather up the courage to come with us and demand their constitutional right to cast a ballot. We didn’t get many takers. Some people wouldn’t let us in their house. Others wouldn’t let us on their property. They were scared, and justifiably so. After the summer, most of us were going back where we came from and they were staying in Mississippi, no longer officially accounted for as 3/5ths a person, but legally kept from being whole.

        My partner and I, Charly Biggers, who had been a Freedom Rider in 1961, registered seven people all summer, and that was only because Charly was one of the best talkers I ever met. Some volunteers didn’t register anyone. Many of us were arrested, often more than once. Charly and I shared a cell for two days with an activist from Massachusetts named Abbie Hoffman. He made us laugh the entire time. When the summer was over, out of 500,000 eligible blacks, Mississippi had 1,200 new black voters. [...]

        At its most basic, Freedom Summer was about stopping the ruthless terrorism at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, the killing of Americans who were merely trying to exercise their rights and ending the intimidation of others who were too afraid to even try to secure their rights. The murder of the three civil rights workers was no anomaly but took place amid other murders in the context of protests led by courageous African Americans, some of whom were also murdered. The violence didn’t end just because of the national spotlight shone on Mississippi, a focus that would not have occurred had two of those young men in 1964 not been white. Black lives simply weren’t worth as much as white. And some Mississippians figured they’d continue with the old ways once the "outside agitators" and national media went home.

        They were, to some extent, right. From June that year until January of 1965, Ku Klux Klan nightriders burned 31 black churches in Mississippi. And, although some men were convicted and sentenced to short terms in prison made even shorter by parole, it took another 41 years before Edgar Killen, the Klan kleagle who recruited the murderers, was convicted of manslaughter on the anniversary of the day the three men disappeared.

        Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

        by Meteor Blades on Sun Jan 20, 2013 at 09:35:22 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Great takedown, Jon, with the irrefutable (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    princesspat, WakeUpNeo

    advantage of being true. Thanks.

    Some DKos series & groups worth your while: Black Kos, Native American Netroots, KosAbility, Monday Night Cancer Club. If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

    by peregrine kate on Sat Jan 19, 2013 at 08:25:31 PM PST

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