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Analysis

John Lewis Was a Hero for Democracy and Civil Rights

Let’s honor John Lewis by redoubling our efforts for equality, for racial justice, and for American democracy.

July 18, 2020

Rep. John Lewis was one of the great heroes in Amer­ican history and a power­ful voice for the coun­try’s ideals. It is strik­ing that we lost him in the middle of this summer of reck­on­ing over racial injustice.  

We all know Lewis’s story. He had a speech imped­i­ment but learned to orate by preach­ing to the chick­ens in his yard. He had immense phys­ical cour­age and was beaten and arres­ted count­less times. At age 21, he was chair of the Student Nonvi­ol­ent Coordin­at­ing Commit­tee (SNCC) and led the Free­dom Rides. At age 23, he spoke at the March on Wash­ing­ton. (He endured a conten­tious edit­ing session with Dr. King and others in the office behind the Abra­ham Lincoln statue.) He gave the day’s most assert­ive address, passion­ate and authen­tic, vowing to keep march­ing “until the Revolu­tion of 1776 is complete.” In that speech, as I note in my book The Fight to Vote, he became the first major U.S. figure to call for “one man, one vote” — a concept he borrowed from the African free­dom move­ments. 

Of course, Lewis led the voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965. It’s still possible to be shocked by the photo of him at the lead of the march, in his rain­coat, with his hands in his pock­ets, stand­ing rock-still as the Alabama state troop­ers charged at him. A police baton frac­tured his skull. At a mass meet­ing hours after the attack, dazed and still covered in dried blood, Lewis spoke: “I don’t see how Pres­id­ent John­son can send troops to Viet­nam…and he can’t send troops to Selma, Alabama.” Foot­age of the beat­ings was broad­cast that night on national tele­vi­sion, inter­rupt­ing the premiere of the movie Judg­ment at Nurem­berg

That video evid­ence of the brutal­ity of white suprem­acy and law enforce­ment abuse kindled a nation­wide move­ment that week. Demon­stra­tions, sit-ins, and more followed. Time magazine repor­ted, “Rarely in history has public opin­ion reacted so spon­tan­eously and with such fury.” Just as this year, when the video of the murder of George Floyd revealed how visual evid­ence of injustice has the power to pierce people’s conscious­ness, “Bloody Sunday” revealed truths and chal­lenged the coun­try’s sense of itself. A week later Pres­id­ent Lyndon John­son spoke before Congress to intro­duce the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and declare, “We shall over­come.” 

As the Bren­nan Center has docu­mented in numer­ous stud­ies, the Voting Rights Act was the most effect­ive civil rights law in Amer­ican history. In Missis­sippi, the African Amer­ican voter regis­tra­tion rate leaped from 6.7 percent in 1964 to 59.3 percent four years later and 71 percent by 1998. Similar levels of Black civic parti­cip­a­tion were found across the South. It amoun­ted to a Second Recon­struc­tion, this time one that took root — but is now under unre­lent­ing assault. 

Lewis was the “conscience of the Congress.” He was a very decent person, inspir­ing, gener­ous. He called himself a “tugboat, not a show­boat.” He won his House seat in a hotly contested primary by forging a coali­tion of work­ing-class Black voters and white voters. He fought injustice wherever he saw it. He led a sit-in of lawmakers on the House floor in support of gun control. He was outspoken against anti-Semit­ism. He refused to attend the inaug­ur­a­tion of Donald Trump. He was a vibrant and vital figure, learn­ing and grow­ing.

The Bren­nan Center was very fortu­nate to follow, hear from, and work with Rep. Lewis over the years. We presen­ted him with the Bren­nan Legacy Award in 2006 to mark the organ­iz­a­tion’s 10th anniversary, and he spoke passion­ately at our dinner. In 2013, our Wash­ing­ton, D.C. office repres­en­ted the Center at the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma. 

Lewis intro­duced the Voter Empower­ment Act, the first federal bill for auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion, in 2013. The Bren­nan Center’s Demo­cracy Program and D.C. office worked closely with him on that legis­la­tion. He was a vocal, passion­ate supporter of H.R. 1. He said on the House floor when it passed last year, “It makes me feel like crying when people are denied the right to vote. We all know that this is not a Demo­cratic or a Repub­lican issue. It is an Amer­ican one.”

In 2018, the Bren­nan Center’s Justice Program worked with Lewis to strenu­ously insist that the First Step Act should address not just prison condi­tions but must also include mean­ing­ful senten­cing reform. His voice made a big differ­ence in that step for racial justice. 

And, of course, to his last days, Lewis’s was an urgent voice to restore the Voting Rights Act. In all the praise for Chief Justice in recent weeks, never forget that John Roberts wrote the appalling Shelby County decision in 2013 that gutted the Voting Rights Act. Within hours, states began to imple­ment voter suppres­sion laws. That day, for example, Texas imple­men­ted its harsh voter ID law, instantly disen­fran­chising 608,000 registered voters, as our lawsuit proved. Today’s climate of voter suppres­sion is a direct result of the gutting of the VRA. 

We will hear much rever­ence for John Lewis this week. Already Sen. Mitch McCon­nell has issued a state­ment. H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Advance­ment Act, passed the House of Repres­ent­at­ives in Decem­ber. (The Bren­nan Center test­i­fied in support of the bill.) But it sits in the Senate, with no debate, no hear­ings, noth­ing. In 2006 the VRA reau­thor­iz­a­tion passed the Senate 98–0. Today, Mitch McCon­nell has bottled it up tight.

How to honor John Lewis? 

Rename Edmund Pettus Bridge, yes, of course. But all the words of condol­ence and sorrow are hollow if the Senate does not take up and pass the VRAA. 

Lewis was savvy and I think some­what self-sacri­fi­cing in his will­ing­ness to be a voice of memory, to use his own renown and legend for justice. He under­stood how import­ant it was to keep telling and retell­ing the story of Bloody Sunday. (He won a National Book Award a few years ago for the graphic novel March. His speech at the award cere­mony is extraordin­ar­ily moving. When he grew up as the son of share­crop­pers, he said, librar­ies were not for “colored” chil­dren. He recoun­ted one teacher, who urged him, “read, my child, read.”) 

His last public appear­ance, as you may have seen, was to accom­pany the mayor of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. to view Black Lives Matter Plaza outside Lafay­ette Square. He under­stood the symbol­ism of the moment, and so did every­one watch­ing. He embraced and encour­aged today’s move­ment for racial justice. He told audi­ences to get into trouble, “good trouble.” 

Let’s honor John Lewis by redoub­ling our own efforts for equal­ity, for racial justice, and for Amer­ican demo­cracy.