August 13, 2020
The son of Alabama sharecroppers, a leader in the civil rights movement by age 21, a preacher and practitioner of nonviolence, a constant seeker of good trouble, and a 17-term congressman from Georgia, John Lewis was an American hero. A giant. A true founding father of the more perfect union his work, his blood, and his sacrifice helped create.
Congressman Lewis died last month, leaving us at a time when his leadership has felt more indispensable than ever. But he didn’t go without writing one last essay with instructions for how to keep on marching without him.
We know what we have to do. To truly honor his legacy, we have to come together and demand the restoration of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), a landmark law that ensured and protected the right to vote of every citizen, regardless of their race. Lewis risked his life in the struggle for voting rights. He was instrumental in the passage of the VRA. We owe it to him to do all we can to make sure every American’s voice is heard.
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The Courage to Stand Up for His Beliefs
What drives a man to repeatedly put his life on the line? To march straight toward police officers and troopers though he knew their batons would crash down upon his head? To sit at a lunch counter while being abused and mocked, without retaliating, without saying a word? For John Lewis, it was unshakeable courage and an overriding belief that Black men and women deserved justice and equality and should be treated with dignity and respect. He believed this country could be better than it was.
He saw a lot of similarities between himself and the young people who have filled the streets protesting systemic racism, white supremacy, and police brutality after the murder of George Floyd. He was only 21 when he led the Freedom Rides through the South. Only 23 when he spoke to hundreds of thousands of people at the March on Washington. Only 25 when he was beaten nearly to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, during a peaceful march for voting rights in 1965. News coverage of the violence outraged Americans and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that same year.
Why We Need to Restore the VRA
The VRA was a remarkably effective piece of legislation. In guaranteeing protections for all citizens, no matter their race or color, it significantly narrowed the registration gap between white and Black voters, and in the process transformed our democracy. Thanks to its clear and obvious success, the VRA was reauthorized numerous times under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
But in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, arguing, in effect, that it had been so successful that racism was no longer a problem! Many states whose election systems had been overseen by the VRA wasted no time in rolling out new voter-suppression tactics. True, there may no longer be poll taxes or literacy tests, but all the new voter ID laws, for example, have the same purpose: to make it harder for Black Americans to vote.
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It’s Time to Ensure Voting Rights for All
“It makes me feel like crying when people are denied the right to vote,” Lewis said. “We all know that this is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. It is an American one.” That’s how it should be, anyway, which is why it’s been so jarring to read effusive tributes to the congressman from politicians who do not support the very thing he risked his life to secure: voting rights for all.
We need fewer flowery words and more action. Congress has the power to repair the damage done to the VRA. In fact, the House of Representatives, led by Congressman Lewis, passed two bills last year that would reinstate provisions the Court’s 2013 ruling stripped away and further dismantle other barriers to the ballot box. Both bills have sat, untouched, in the Senate ever since.
The March Goes On
The congressman’s death has reenergized the push for voting-rights legislation. Senators have vowed to reintroduce the Voting Rights Amendment Act and name it after Lewis. The House, with H.R. 4, did the same.
As we lurch toward a tumultuous election season, with many Americans already understandably concerned about the effects of the pandemic on voting (and daily life), ensuring that we can all safely and easily cast a vote is more important than ever.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America,” Lewis wrote. Today it is up to every one of us to stand together and do just that. Our voting rights are under threat. Our democracy has been weakened. But think of John Lewis marching across that bridge in Selma. He wasn’t alone. There were hundreds with him. Soon there were thousands. That’s what brought change then, and it’s what is bringing change today. Join us as we continue marching in honor of John Lewis. We won’t stop until the VRA has been restored.
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