Aug 14 10:04 PM

Rep. John Lewis, civil rights icon, calls for National Guard in Ferguson

Rep. John Lewis, seen here in 2013, has called for the president to impose martial law in Ferguson, Mo.
Charles Dharapak / AP

Georgia Rep. John Lewis, D, who suffered a fractured skull at the hands of police during a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, called on President Barack Obama to declare martial law in Ferguson, Missouri, and use the national guard to protect demonstrators.

Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, has been the site of nightly protests and aggressive shows of force by St. Louis County law enforcement since unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police on Saturday. St. Louis County police have used teargas, baton rounds, and rubber bullets against small and predominantly peaceful demonstrations by area residents.

“It is very sad and unbelievable. It's unreal to see what the police is doing there,” said Rep. Lewis, speaking to Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC in advance of remarks by the president. Lewis said the mostly white Ferguson police force reminded him of “the ‘40s, the ‘50s, the ‘60s.”

Lewis harkened back to 1961, when President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect Montgomery’s First Baptist Church, which was under siege by an estimated 3,000 angry white residents who threatened to burn the church to the ground. Huddled inside that church was a veritable who’s who of the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, James Farmer, Wyatt Tee Walker … and a 21-year-old Freedom Rider named John Lewis.

“My own feeling is right now is that President Obama should use the authority of his office to declare martial law, federalize the Missouri National Guard to protect people as they protest," Lewis said.

Lewis also probably remembered June 1963 when JFK again used the National Guard in Montgomery to help two African American students register at the University of Alabama over the fervent and physical protests of segregationist Governor George Wallace.

What Lewis probably did not have in mind was the front page of the New York Times exactly 49 years ago today.

“2,000 TROOPS ENTER LOS ANGELES ON THIRD DAY OF NEGRO RIOTING; 4 DIE AS FIRES AND LOOTING GROW,” was the three-line headline in the upper right corner on August 14, 1965.

That reporting detailed day 3 of the Watts Riots (also known as the Watts Rebellion), and those National Guard troops were meant to restore order to a predominantly black neighborhood where a famously racist Los Angeles Police Department could not.

It took four more days to quell the unrest. In the end, the week’s violence claimed 34 lives, injured over 1,000, and resulted in 3,438 arrests. There was an estimated 40 million 1965-dollars in property damage. While there were many in the Watts community that called on California’s governor (then Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, the father of the current California governor) or President Lyndon Johnson to send in the Guard, the perception was that action wasn’t taken until violence threatened to spread to white parts of the city.

Lewis spoke of calling in the National Guard before Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced that the St. Louis County police would be relieved of command of the situation in Ferguson, replaced by the State Highway Patrol, so it is not clear if the Georgia Democrat would consider this an acceptable alternative. But it is also not clear if today’s National Guard, many of them having served tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, and equipped with similar armor, weaponry and vehicles to the hyper-militarized St. Louis County police, would have sent the message of a “different tone” that Gov. Nixon insisted needed to prevail in Ferguson going forward.

At this hour, it is also not clear if the Missouri State Highway Patrol will achieve what Nixon called an “operational shift,” but it was clear to Lewis that action was necessary.

"People should come together — reasonable elected officials, community leaders — and address what is happening there,” said Lewis. “If you fail to act, the fires of frustration and discontent will continue to burn, not only in Ferguson, Missouri, but all across America.”

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