October 3, 2009, the Washtenaw County Democratic Party in Michigan held its annual dinner. Three U.S. Congressmen were in attendance. The first was freshman Representative Mark Schauer, a young, vibrant and optimistic Congressman. The second was Representative John Dingell, the longest-serving member in Congress today and a man who has introduced a single-payer health care bill every year for 52 years. The third was a pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement, a man jailed over 40 times, beaten and bloodied for his views and actions, Representative John Lewis from Georgia. He attended President Obama's inauguration as the only living speaker from the civil rights' March on Washington.
These three men, from dramatically different backgrounds and perspectives, all spoke with one voice in saying that health care reform in this country is the civil rights struggle of our time.
From L to R: County Dem. Party Chair Stu Dowty, Rep. Mark Schauer, Rep. John Dingell, Rep. John Lewis
First to speak was Rep. Mark Schauer. He had a little something to say about Joe "the Heckler" Wilson appearing in Michigan with his Republican opponent Tim Walberg:
We were asked to comment and, of course, I had nothing to say. But some of my people did and one of the things they said was you are the company you keep. And, so, Tim Walberg has Joe Wilson and I have John Dingell and John Lewis.
And then he spoke of his two colleagues. And he put today's struggle to pass health care reform in the context of the American Civil Rights Movement that John Lewis was such an integral part of. Lewis spoke, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, at the March on Washington at age 23, the youngest speaker that day. He also took part in the famous Freedom Rides and was beaten and bloodied crossing a bridge in Selma marching for the right to vote. From his Wikipedia entry:
Lewis was instrumental in organizing student sit-ins, bus boycotts and non-violent protests in the fight for voter and racial equality. He endured brutal beatings by angry mobs and suffered a fractured skull at the hands of Alabama State police as he led a march of 600 people in Selma, Ala. in 1965
Here's what Rep. Schauer had to say about his two colleagues:
In an era when genuine American heroes are harder and harder to come by, it's an honor for me to serve with Congressman Lewis in the House and a real treat to have him here in Michigan tonight. Thank you, John, for being here. Thank you for everything you've done to make this country a better place and for your passion and integrity and for keeping Dr. King's dream alive...As you know, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle." Well, America and Michigan voted for change last year but now we have a better sense of what Dr. King meant when he said change comes through continuous struggle. The struggle now, of course, is over health care reform, something John Dingell knows a little bit about. One of the criticisms I often hear around my district about this effort is "what's the rush?"
Well, John Dingell has been introducing a bill to provide health insurance to every single American since 1957, before I was born. Before I was born and I'm getting gray hair! So it's been too long. So when people ask, "what's the rush?", I say we can't afford to wait. It's been a long struggle, decades in the making, but when health insurance reform - WHEN health insurance reform passes this year in the US Congress, the name on the bill will be of the man I'm proud to serve with and proud to introduce, your Congressman John Dingell.
And then the esteemed John Dingell spoke. He introduced Rep. Lewis and in the process, he tied Lewis' history fighting for civil rights in this country to the battle ahead over health care reform.
It my privilege to try to do the impossible: to tell you what a giant we have with us tonight and what an honor we have to have him here and how proud we can be that he has come back here to be with us to support us in what we are doing to try to see to it that we have the Democratic Party we need to win the next election at every level. And for that we say to you, John, we are grateful. He's going to give you a message tonight that is going to be of enormous value. That's because it's going to speak of the human spirit. He's going to speak of words that were important to me when I was a boy and my dad was in the Congress. He's going to talk about social justice. This is beyond the other meanings. It means that everybody is going to be confident that he or she will be able to be treated decently as they should in a great nation -- in the greatest nation in the world. And to know that they're going to receive the kind of consideration that goes with a citizenship in a body of that kind.
We owe this man tremendously for what it is that he has done already. But he is a shining light of leadership now in the time before us and he is going to be one of those who is going to carry this country across a difficult time. The fights that are going on over health care are some of the nastiest and most ungracious and indecent that I have ever seen. They're full of deceit and dishonesty and dishonor. We need to handle issues of this kind in a greater and more suitable way, one more fitting to the greatest nation in the world. And he'll speak clearly to us about that.
He's going to carry us from where we are now, proud of what we've done about the human rights of our people. Proud of what we've done to make this a better country for ourselves, for our kids and, indeed, for ALL of our people regardless of our race, creed or color. But he's going to talk to us about what I have so many times heard him talk about and that is about how we now go forward to do the rest of the things that we must do to see to it that the strengths of this country are grown the way they should be, seeing to it that we all have an appreciation that our stake in this country is meaningful and real. And that it does give social justice to all of our people. And how this is good. Not just for those few that have, but rather for all who should have. We are proud, indeed, that John Lewis is with us.
And then, finally, Representative Lewis spoke. He spoke for over 20 minutes. You can listen to the speech here and view a full transcript HERE.
Here are some excerpts.
Health care as a civil right, not a privilege:
John has already said, he made it plain, that we're in for a difficult fight on the issue of health care before us. Every session of the Congress this man, your Congressperson, has been introducing health legislation, following in the footsteps of his father. He believes, as I believe, that health care is a right and it's not a privilege but a right. And that the quantity and the quality of a person's health care should not be decided by the size of their personal wallet, that person's bank account or the zip code that that person lives in. We're going to pass health care and when we pass it, as Mark stated, John Dingell's name will be all over that bill. It will be a living tribute to him.
On his Republican colleagues:
When I was a young child, I wanted to be a minister. I wanted to preach the Gospel. So, from time to time, with the help of my brothers and sisters and my first cousins, I would get all of our chickens together from the chicken yard like you're gathered here in this room. My brothers and sisters and first cousins would line the outside around the chicken yard. Along with the chickens, my brothers and sisters and first cousins would become part of the congregation, of the audience and I would start preaching.
But when I looked back some of the chickens would bow their heads, some of the chickens would shake their heads, but they never quite said "amen"!
But I'm convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to in the 40s and the 50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my Republican colleagues listen to us in the Congress today or they listened to me better, I would think, better than Joe Wilson.
I think some of those chickens were probably a little more productive. At least they produced eggs!
On the fight ahead over health care reform:
I asked my mother, I asked father, my grandparents, my great grandparents, "Why segregation? Why racial discrimination?" And they would say, "That's the way it is. Don't get in the way, don't get in trouble!"
But I was inspired to get in the way, to get in trouble. And it was good trouble and it was necessary trouble. And it's time for the Democratic Party all across America to get in trouble again and help Barack Obama pass health care! We must do it. We MUST do it!
Our party, OUR party, we control the House, we control the Senate, we have the White House. The American people elected us to do something.
Now, in the 60s, we didn't have a website. We didn't have a iPod. We didn't have a cellular telephone. We didn't have a fax machine. But we used what we had to bring about a non-violent revolution, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas. And it's time for us again as a people to mobilize, to organize, and turn people out to vote like we did in '08 and we must do it in 2010. You must send John Dingell back. You must send Mark Schauer back. We must maintain our majority.
You know, a lot of this is not about just defeating health care. Part of it is pure politics. They want to give the Democrats a defeat. They want to give President Barack Obama a defeat. And that must not happen on our watch.
This is not a struggle that only lasts for one election or one term of a president. Our struggle is the struggle of a lifetime if that is what it takes to build a more perfect Union.
When I spoke at the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963 at the age of 23, I was the youngest speaker. I spoke number six. Dr. King spoke number ten. I remember saying in that speech, "You tell us to wait. You tell us to be patient. We cannot wait, we cannot be patient. We want our freedom and we want it NOW!" That's what we must say about health care: NOW is the time. We must pass health care now.
If it were up to John Dingell and John Dingell alone, we would have had single-payer. Right, John? But we've got to come together with our friends, all of our friends, and our friends in the Senate, and send this president the strongest possible health care reform bill.
We can do it. Not just for ourselves. But for our children and their children, a generation yet a-born. If we fail to pass it, in my estimation, the American people and history will not be kind to us.
A right, not a privilege. A struggle as important and epic as the fight for civil rights in this country.
Three representatives, one voice: health care is a civil right.