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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
john-lewis
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

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.