Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who nearly 40 years ago suffered a fractured skull as police officers attacked civil rights protesters with dogs and billy clubs in Selma, Alabama, denounced the police treatment of protesters and journalists in Ferguson, Missouri on Thursday. He urged President Obama not to wait for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) to act and to immediately federalize the Missouri National Guard to protect citizens from police brutality.
On MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports, Lewis compared the crisis in Ferguson to what he saw in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. “Ferguson, Missouri is part of the United States of America,” he noted. “People have a right to protest, they have a right to dissent, they have a right to march in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, and the press has a right to cover it.” Ferguson, he added, is “not the Congo, it is not China, it is not Russia. We can do better.”
He urged immediate action:
President Obama should use the authority of his office to declare martial law. Federalize the Missouri National Guard to protect people as they protest. And people should come together: reasonable elected officials, community leaders and address what is happening there. If we fail to act, the fires of frustration and discontent will continue to burn, not only in Ferguson, Missouri, but all across America.
Watch the video:
Declaring “martial law” typically means military intervention in a civilian conflict, usually in violent or extreme circumstances, although the U.S. Supreme Court has conceded that the term has no exact definition. In the past, U.S. presidents of both parties have used the National Guard to resolve racial crises. Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard in 1957 to protect African American students’ right to attend public school in Little Rock and Lyndon Johnson did the same in Alabama in 1965 to protect Lewis and others marching from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights. As Lewis noted in the interview, President Kennedy also nationalized the guard in 1961 to protect Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama.
In a speech Thursday, however, President Obama expressed confidence that Nixon could handle the situation, urged “healing, peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson,” and said he has asked the Attorney General and U.S. Attorney to keep him posted.