News & Politics

Health Reform Foes Scream N-Word at Civil Rights Icon

The man who led civil rights activists across the Edmund Pettis Bridge 45 years ago is greeted on Capitol Hill by Tea Party protesters with shouts of the N-word.

Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights movement veteran, was across from the U.S. Capitol Saturday, not far from where he and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered speeches to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, when he heard a word from his past.

White activists, associated with the so-called "Tea Party" movement, who had come to Capitol Hill to protest the anticipated passage of health-care reform legislation on Sunday, used the ugliest racist epithets to attack the man who marched at the side of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for daring to disagree with them.

Lewis was leaving the Cannon Office Building Saturdayv afternoon when a crowd of demonstrators descended on him, shouting obscenities and screaming, "Kill the bill, kill the bill."

Lewis responded, "I'm for the bill, I'm for the bill, I'm voting for the bill."

Then, according to Lewis and others who were present, the Tea Party crowd then started began shouting: "Kill the bill, n-----."

The incident, which took place not far from where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, was witnessed by other members of Congress and is being broadly reported by media outlets, including McClatchy Newspapers and Fox News.

Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, another member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was a few feet away when the white protesters began shouting the N-word.

"It was a chorus," said Cleaver, who was spit on by protesters. "In a way, I feel sorry for those people who are doing this nasty stuff -– they're being whipped up.. I decided I wouldn't be angry with any of them."

"It was a lot of downright hate and anger and people being downright mean," said Lewis, who added that he was surprised and saddened that "people are so mean and we can't engage in a civil dialogue and debate."

The man whose skull was fractured when he was attacked during a 1965 civil rights march in Alabama said, "I haven't heard anything like this in 40, 45 years. Since the march to Selma, really."

Referring to the behavior he saw Saturday as "a mob mentality," Lewis said: "The Republican leadership is making a mistake not doing more to disasociate from this."

The No. 3 Democrat in the House, South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, another veteran of the civil rights movement, echoed the sentiment with regard to the racist language of the Tea Party activists.

"It was absolutely shocking to me," Clyburn told reporters. "Last Monday, this past Monday, I stayed home to meet on the campus of Claflin University where fifty years ago as of last Monday... I led the first demonstrations in South Carolina, the sit ins... And quite frankly I heard some things today I have not heard since that day. I heard people saying things that I have not heard since March 15, 1960 when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus."

There has been much discussion since the inception of the "Tea Party" movement of the fact that it is overwhelmingly white in make-up and, to the view of its critics, racist is its messaging.

But this is the most blatant and high-profile such incident yet, and it left many of Capitol Hill shaken.

"This is incredible, shocking to me," said Clyburn, who added that he thought the true character of the anti-reform campaigners was being exposed. "I think a lot of those people today demonstrated that this is not about health care," he explained. "It is about trying to extend a basic fundamental right to people who are less powerful."

John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.
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