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Remembering John Lewis

The civil rights hero’s fight against voter suppression goes on, writes Brennan Center Fellow Andrew Cohen.

July 27, 2020
john lewis
CQ Archive/Getty

John Lewis lived long enough to see the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice and then bend back again toward the injustice we see today. He lived long enough to see a Black president of the United States and then a racist in the Oval Office, long enough to see the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and then the Supreme Court decision in June 2013 that gutted one of its most important provisions. Lewis lived long enough to see the fall of countless statues of Confederate icons and the implementation of racist immigration policies and totalitarian police tactics in American streets.

That Lewis lived 52 years longer than Martin Luther King Jr., or that he served decades in Congress as the conscience of the country, aren’t the only reasons why he was such a respected and beloved figure. He connected with so many people, including so many people who were not alive when he marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1955, because he was more than just his speeches, or his scores of arrests for protesting, or his persistent making of “good trouble.” He was vibrant. He was funny. He danced his whole life as though no one were watching even though the whole nation was watching his every move.

The body of the late congressman was transported one final time Sunday over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and this time state troopers wielded salutes, not batons, to honor one of grandest figures of the civil rights era. There’s been a great deal of talk since Lewis’s death of renaming that bridge in his honor, and that would be a start, but the only legacy that should matter to the rest of us in his wake is the restoration of a vibrant Voting Rights Act and perhaps even a constitutional amendment that would protect voting rights from future vote suppressors in Congress and the Supreme Court.

We already are halfway there on the first part. House Democrats in 2019 passed H.R. 1, known as the “For the People Act,” which would help restore the Voting Rights Act, add automatic voter registration, reform redistricting, and otherwise make it easier for Americans to cast valid ballots. Later last year, those same House Democrats passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which is specifically drafted to fix the problems with the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court identified in its 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. That measure, too, would protect citizens from partisan voter suppression.

Both measures have been languishing in the GOP-controlled Senate, held hostage by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who had the gall last week to make a speech praising John Lewis even as he exercised his political prerogative to stymie so much of what Lewis stood for. There is no reason to think that McConnell is going to yield and allow those voting rights bills to come to a vote in the Senate, even after 48 senators last week asked him to do so. The Republican Party has made it increasingly clear over the past decade — see the legislative response Florida’s Amendment 4, for example — that voter suppression is a part of their election strategy.

I had few interactions with Lewis over the years. I interviewed him briefly in 2012 about voting rights, right around the time that local Republicans were beginning to use voter identification laws as vehicles to suppress the votes of likely Democratic voters. Legislators like State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, in Butler County, Pennsylvania, who made national news in September 2012 when he dog-whistled about “lazy” people not wanting to get voter ID cards. Or Doug Priesse, the Republican Party chairman of Franklin County, Ohio, who in August 2012 made even more explicitly bigoted comments about black voters.

John Lewis, predictably, was having none of it. He told me

“People are not being beaten and trampled by horses or tear gassed, people are not being shot and killed. The obstructions are not as obvious, but the effect of what state legislatures and party officials are doing will damage the integrity of our political process for generations to come, if it is not corrected. As a people and as a nation, we are too quiet. All of us should be up on our feet. There should be public outcry. There should be a sense of righteous indignation over what is happening during this election season. We should not just roll over and allow it to happen. Lawyers, political scientists, scholars, activists, teachers, ministers, seniors, farmers and ordinary citizens should be speaking up, speaking out and making some noise about what is happening in America.”

That was almost exactly eight years ago. Before the disastrous Shelby County ruling. Before the election of Donald Trump as president. Before the nominations of hundreds of federal judges loyal to Trump and likely hostile to voting rights. Before the Justice Department all but abandoned its mission to protect the franchise for minority citizens. Before white supremacists held positions of power within the federal government. Before the American people had taken to the streets to protest police brutality and other injustices and were gassed and shot for it.

John Lewis lived long enough to see all this madness, and sadness, but not long enough to see the renewal and restoration of the grand causes to which he had dedicated his life. We can name high schools and bridges after him. We can name voting rights legislation after him. We can even invoke his memory, a blessing, should we choose to fight for a constitutional amendment to enshrine voting rights. What mattered to Lewis, though, was not just the symbolism but the product, not just the talk but the walk. And no one walked more or longer for justice than John Lewis, a bridge from the America we are to the one we aspire to be.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.