John Lewis
Newsweek Opinion Article
September 12, 2005 issue

A civil-rights leader mourns an African-American population left behind

I was headed to New Orleans as a Freedom Rider in May of 1961. It would've been my first visit, but we were arrested in Jackson, Miss., and never made it. In happier times, though, I have been able to visit New Orleans over the years. It's one of my favorite cities, one of the great Southern cities. The people are friendly, warm, helpful. In the old part of the city, there's so much history when you walk down Canal Street or Royal. One of my favorite places is a shop on Royal, where they have lots of art posters by African-American artists. After Katrina, there's a loss of the music, the restaurants and the character in addition to the unbelievable loss of lives. Maybe we will never know the number of people who have been lost.

It's very painful for me to watch and read about what is happening. I have a sense of righteous indignation. I think all Americans should rise up and speak out. It's not like 9/11 that just happened. We saw this in the making. The media told us for days this storm was coming, and for years people have been telling us we need to do something to prepare. It took us so many days to make the full force of the government available afterward.

In 1957, during the crisis in Little Rock, President Dwight Eisenhowerb maybe he was reluctant, maybe he had some reservations, but he put the full force of the government behind the decision to desegregate Central High. During the Freedom Rides, President John Kennedy didn't hesitate to federalize the National Guard and put the whole city of Montgomery under martial law. It's baffling to me that we didn't have the ability or the will to do something much earlier. We still haven't had the passionate statement that should be made by officials in this administration.

It's so glaring that the great majority of people crying out for help are poor, they're black. There's a whole segment of society that's being left behind. When you tell people to evacuate, these people didn't have any way to leave. They didn't have any cars, any SUVs.

It's so strange that when we have something like this happening, the president gets two ex-presidents — his father and Bill Clintonb — to raise money. What they propose to do is good, and I appreciate all the work the private sector and the faith-based community are doing. But when we get ready to go to war, we don't go around soliciting resources with a bucket or an offering plate. We have the courage to come before Congress and debate the issue, authorize money. That's what we need to do here. By next year we'll have spent $400 billion to $500 billion in Afghanistan and Iraq. That money could be used to help rebuild the lives of people. If we fail to act as a nation, I don't think history will be kind to us.

We've got to do more than the $10 billion that Congress appropriated. We need a massive Marshall-type plan to rebuild New Orleans. But in rebuilding we should see this as an opportunity to rebuild urban America. New Orleans could be a model. There must be a commitment of billions and billions of dollarsb — maybe $50 billion to $100 billion. I think even in other urban centers, there are people who are just barely existing. We sing the song "Hope is on the way," but it's taking a long time before hope arrives. It becomes very discouraging where you see people dyingb — children, the elderly, the sickb — the lack of food and water. I've cried a lot of tears the past few days as I watched televisionb — to see somebody lying dead outside the convention center. I went to Somalia in 1992 and I saw little babies dying before my eyes. This reminded me of Somalia. But this is America. We're not a Third World country. This is an embarrassment. It's a shame. It's a national disgrace.

Lewis is the U.S. congressman from the Fifth District of Georgia.

© 2005, John Lewis

Copyright © 2005
Last Modified: September 8, 2005.
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