“1776” is one of my favorite movies, and I try to watch it every July 4th. It is a fictionalized, dramatized, and, I think, beautifully romanticized version of what happened when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. Though I haven’t watched it for a few years because we now visit my aunt over the Fourth, I still know most of the lines and the lyrics to most of the songs, some of which came from actual letters and journals of the delegates.
One of my favorite characters is Thomas McKean, a delegate from Maryland. When a vote is to be taken as to whether to discuss independence, McKean is nowhere to be found. Eventually, he stumbles in, explaining that he has been visiting the privy. “What are we votin’ on?” he queries. Someone says that the vote is whether to talk about declaring independence from Great Britain, that his is the only vote missing, and that the vote stands tied. “Well,” he blusters, “I’ve never thought that something was too dangerous to TALK about! I vote ‘yes!’”
I thought about that Wednesday night when I heard about the sit-in at the House of Representatives. The Democrats in the House, the minority party, decided, under the leadership of Georgia Rep. John Lewis, to sit on the floor of the House until the Republicans would take up bills regarding gun safety measures. It was the kind of civil disobedience that the Declaration of Independence was about – making a stand against something that the people believed to be wrong.
The historical significance of the sit-in regarding a vote is that it was led by one of the true Civil Rights legends of the 1960s, John Lewis – a member of a group of people who has had the unfettered right to vote in this country for only 50 years. John Lewis, who knew the power of the vote that many of us have forgotten, organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South when he was in college; he also challenged segregation by riding public buses, sitting in designated “whites only” seats. For his pains he was arrested at least 40 times (https://johnlewis.house.gov/john-lewis/biography).
Lewis’s most notable participation in the Civil Rights Movement, however, was his joining in the peaceful march in 1965 in Selma, Alabama, over a bridge and into a waiting mob, where he and other marchers were brutally beaten by the Alabama State Highway Patrol. He was severely injured in that confrontation, known as “Bloody Sunday.” Later that year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, ensuring that African Americans would have the right to vote without the encumbrances that the South was famous for – having to pay a “tax,” or having to know the names of all elected officials in all the counties in the state, or other tests that were designed to stifle the vote of black people.
And so this week, 51 years after he helped ensure African Americans’ right to vote, Rep. Lewis organized a sit-in to champion all Americans’ right to vote, through their duly elected Representatives, on gun safety legislation. In the House of Representatives, the minority party, in this instance, the Democrats, has no say on which legislation comes to a vote. The Speaker of the House determines the voting agenda. And at this particular time, Speaker Paul Ryan doesn’t want to vote on whether people buying guns should be subject to universal background checks (no exemptions for gun shows or on line purchases), or whether suspected terrorists who aren’t allowed to fly on airplanes should be able to buy guns.
After the mind-numbing massacre in Orlando, polls say that those two measures are supported by over 80% of the American public (http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/20/politics/cnn-gun-poll/#). It seems natural that the Congress would want to vote on that legislation. But they don’t.
I think we should all engage in what our form of government encourages: call and write and e-mail and tweet our Representatives and tell them what we think. I’m with John Lewis. I want a vote because the important thing is to talk about it and try to come to some agreement. After all, nothing is too dangerous to talk about.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.