We begin with Alabama Governor George Wallace, as portrayed in a trailer for the movie Selma, talking about putting down demonstrators agitating for civil rights.
The Governor explained that he would not tolerate agitators.
We will not tolerate agitators attempting to orchestrate a disturbance in this state.
Apparently, he suspected them of attempting to orchestrate a disturbance.
The things they never taught us in high school history.
When I went to school in the 1950s and 60s, American history was still in the grip of research that had been done decades before.
School books written for my generation accepted as fact research that could be traced into the previous century. America had been playing hide-and-seek with slavery ever since the Civil War. So we were told that the bloody conflict was largely fought as a principled states rights issue with slavery as an important factor. Abraham Lincoln was a moderate who was interested in ending slavery, but was mostly concerned with playing fair and going easy on the defeated post-war South.
The South was implicitly defined as the white south, and “going easy” was accepted as having a relaxed attitude toward the rights of former slaves. None of that was printed, of course. None of it was said. What is unstated doesn’t have to be defended, or even subject to questioning.
We were told that, after Lincoln was killed, Radical Republicans were far from interested in playing fair. They only wanted to punish the South. But Andrew Johnson, who inherited the Presidency from Lincoln, resisted those harsh measures. He remained loyal to Lincoln’s broader vision of union, peace, and generosity in victory.
It was history as reflected in a funhouse mirror. Distorted. It had every virtue except fidelity to the truth. It was a lie.
One of my favorite stories from real American history involves John Quincy Adams. It was not presented in any school book that I was ever shown. I came across some bit of scholarship later in life. I’ve written about it before.
John Quincy Adams was President number six. Until George W. Bush took office, he was the only President who was also the son of a President. His father was John Adams.
We were taught that John Quincy Adams was Secretary of State for James Monroe, and that he was a pretty good Secretary of State. But he was elected President in a very close four-candidate race and became a bit of an jerk in office. He lost re-election, but became the only President ever to later become a member of Congress.
I have become a bit of a skeptic about the jerk-while-President chapter of history. Partly it’s because of the way he kept breaking the rules later on while he was in Congress. The man was a genius.
In the late 1830s Congressional Representatives from slave-holding regions began to get fed up with petitions favoring abolition. The Constitution guaranteed the right of petition, but the irritation got to be too much. The conservative Congress passed a rule forbidding consideration of petitions about slavery. Then they banned any debate about slavery at all.
Former President John Quincy Adams, by then, had become a member of the House. He began finding ways to force the issue. The rule prohibited any member of Congress from presenting any petition from his constituents about slavery. So John Quincy Adams presented a petition to allow petitions about slavery. Pro-slavery Congressional representatives objected to this. They insisted that talking about petitions to allow petitions about slavery was the same as talking about slavery, and that broke the rules. So Adams demanded a debate on whether they were right about the rules. During the debate about whether the petitions about petitions would violate the gag rule, he went on at length about slavery.
Eventually, he lost the debate and was told that debate about petitions about petitions about slavery was out of order, and he had better not ever do that again.
Then he presented a petition from a group saying the spirit of the Declaration of Independence was against slavery. He was ruled out of order. He presented another petition that simply asked Congress to respect the Declaration of Independence. That was ruled out of order.
That was considered a major Congressional embarrassment. He had gotten the conservative Congress to come out against the Declaration of Independence.
Since a petition on abolishing slavery had been ruled out of order, he asked for a ruling on whether a petition could be heard on whether to extend slavery, thus allowing for discussion against the petition. During the debate about the right to petition in favor of slavery, he spoke extensively about, well, slavery.
Irritation escalated with each provocation. Slaveholders became outraged. A motion was finally introduced to formally censure the former President. He had broken the rules of the House of Representatives by violating the gag order. Adams insisted that he had the right to defend himself against the charges. He used a lot of his time … you guessed it … to discuss his feelings about slavery. After all, it pertained to the charges against him.
This sort of thing went on and on, year after year. Adams seemed never to wear down.
Eventually the House of Representatives got sick of being forced to come out against everything held sacred by Americans, just to enforce a gag rule that was being violated anyway. The rule was abolished six years after it was established.
How could someone like that have been a jerk earlier in life when he was President?
I thought about this continuous working around the rules in the aftermath of more recent events in Congress.
Or out of Congress, depending on the rules.
After the Orlando shootings, the greatest number of people killed by a single shooter in American history, Congress. held. a moment. of silence. Democrats finally got mad. They demanded a vote on a very modest new gun rule. Anyone who had been on a terrorist no-fly list, or on any terrorist watch list and who was about to buy a weapon capable of such mass killing would be investigated before the purchase could be final.
Conservatives became hyper-sensitive about the rights of accused terrorists. They argued that innocent people could find themselves on a terrorist watch list. Due process is important. Democrats suggested that an investigation into the background of an accused terrorist would only result in a delay of a few days of gun ownership in cases involving those who are innocent of being terrorists.
To those of us outside the legislative process, and perhaps insufficiently concerned with the second amendment rights of accused terrorists, it became hard to understand why anyone would actually want high grade weapons to be sold to followers of ISIS. Someone with a sociopathic desire for manufacturing profits, perhaps. Maybe some organization functioning as a lobby group for sociopathic manufacturers. But who else?
It seems like a bumper sticker issue:
“Is your representative voting to allow the NRA to sell weapons to ISIS?”
Democrats wanted a vote. Republicans control the House of Representatives and they said no. So Democrats held a sit-in.
Republicans adjourned the House of Representatives, then reconvened long enough to declare a legislative day to begin and end, and adjourned again. Then they turned off the cameras.
Well okay. All to be expected.
But technology does have some benefits.
The sit-in members had cell phones and they sent out videos of the sit-in. Social media and C-SPAN picked up the videos. Almost as good as the official images would have been if official business was being conducted.
The results are a little confusing.
Republicans are accusing Democrats of using those videos of official proceedings for social media activism, including the raising of funds for gun-safety groups. That’s against the rules. Members of Congress cannot use videos of official proceedings for raising funds.
But the house cameras were turned off by Republicans, right? That’s because they adjourned Congress so the proceedings were not official.
- So the official proceedings were stopped by Republicans.
- So the cameras could be turned off by Republicans.
- The unofficial events were sent out by cell phone to social media by Democrats.
- Which Republicans say is illegal, because the unofficial proceedings were actually official proceedings.
In the meantime, Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that the sit-in was just a publicity stunt, and that it better not happen again. “We will not take this. We will not tolerate this.”
It did remind me of similar confrontations in the past. John Lewis led the House sit-in, demanding a vote against selling guns to accused terrorists without any investigation. That happens to be the same John Lewis who was nearly killed in civil rights demonstrations in the south during Jim Crow days. Paul Ryan’s reaction also struck a chord.
He will not tolerate a publicity stunt designed to orchestrate a disturbance in the House.
Compare Paul Ryan:
“We will not take this.”
With George Wallace:
“We will not tolerate agitators attempting to orchestrate a disturbance in this state.”
With Paul Ryan:
“We will not tolerate this.”.
Parallels are sometimes merely coincidental. They can rhyme without overlapping.
Civil rights eventually had victories, although there is still a distance to go on voting rights, discrimination, and poverty. And a bill keeping gun manufacturers from selling guns to accused terrorists may also see some progress.
Paul Ryan, who will not tolerate agitators in the House, has, in the end, agreed to a vote.
Probably nothing more than a symbolic move, but symbolism is all Martin Luther King started with, if you get the rhyme.
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