John Lewis' Fight for Voting Rights Goes On - Rolling Stone
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John Lewis’ Fight Goes On

The late congressman and civil rights icon risked his life for voting rights that are now slipping away. To honor his legacy, we don’t need statues. We need to take action and get to work

Congressman John Lewis in his office, 2019

Wayne Lawrence for Rolling Stone

When the Rev. Dr. William Barber II saw that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was the first to eulogize the late John Lewis as he lay in state inside the Capitol rotunda on July 27th, the civil rights leader thought of Jesus admonishing the Pharisees. “We love the tombs of the prophets,” said Barber, paraphrasing Jesus in the New Testament. “We don’t need to be talking about how hard and how great it was that John Lewis stood so firm against injustice. What we need to be doing is repenting and saying, ‘We’re going to make it so nobody ever has to give their life for basic racial justice.’ ” 

It would be easy if McConnell, a man who was blocking a fix to the very Voting Rights Act for which Lewis had risked his life, could wipe his hands clean on the flag that draped the congressman’s coffin. The Kentucky Republican tried to do so, waxing on about how “history only bent toward what’s right because people like John paid the price to help bend it.” But McConnell, ideological heir to the cops who swung the nightsticks at Lewis in Selma, Alabama, on that bloody Sunday in 1965, remains one of the reasons that there is a price at all. 

I worry, for this reason, about the rush to rename things after Lewis as a method of honoring him. In the wake of his death, there were many calls to re-christen Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Democrats renamed the voting rights bill after Lewis before trying once again to pass it. But as Barber noted, “He would want us to be careful of giving people who may diametrically oppose everything he stood for opportunities to stand at a bridge or a statue or something of that nature, and claim that they loved him and loved his legacy.”

“The bottom line is,” Sen. Kamala Harris says, “if you really want to honor John Lewis on the issue of restoring the impact of the Voting Rights Act, pass the bill. I’m sure John Lewis would say, ‘Look, naming it after me versus passing it? Every day of the week, pass the darn thing.’ ” 

Lewis wasn’t about ceremony so much as he was about the work. “One of the biggest disappointments,” says former South Carolina state legislator Bakari Sellers, “is that a part of John Lewis’ legacy that’s not talked about often is his work as a young man between ’63 and ’66, when he was a member and chairman of SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. And they went to Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama and South Carolina, and they registered so many voters, which is why we have so many black elected officials throughout the South.” 

Close-up of American Civil Rights activist (and future politician) John Lewis, chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in an office, New York, 1964. (Photo by Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Gety Images)

Lewis, then chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in New York, 1964.

Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Gety Images

Before taking over the chairmanship of SNCC, Lewis had been one of the original 13 Freedom Riders in 1961, a multiracial group of activists challenging segregation on public buses. Already experienced with sit-ins in Nashville, where he went to college, Lewis was the first of the Riders to be attacked, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when he tried to enter a whites-only waiting room. Just two weeks later, Lewis was on another Freedom Ride bound for Jackson, Mississippi, still nursing a beaten face and ribs.   

The same determination could be found in Lewis’ posthumous essay, published in The New York Times on the morning of his funeral, in which he issued a set of final marching orders to the American public. “When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act,” he wrote. He added, “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.” 

The 2020 election is one that Lewis himself called the most important ever. Rep. James Clyburn said that he wanted Americans to honor his friend by “voting like we have never voted before.” That may be difficult in a nation still plagued with all manner of voting rights calamities. A 2019 report found that states had removed at least 17 million voters from their rolls between the 2016 and 2018 elections. According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, 25 states have introduced measures that will make it more difficult for people to vote in 2020. Then there are the dangers created by the metastasizing pandemic. Few states have either universal vote-by-mail or have shown they have the infrastructure to carry it off efficiently, and congressional Republicans, led by McConnell, have blocked funding to help states prepare in time for the election. 

As Harris tells me, “The symmetry of this moment, where we are honoring the life of an American hero for his fight against injustice, and that injustice is front and center in America, as we were mourning his loss — that should not be lost on any of us.” 

So what needs to be done, now that Lewis, this patriot and American prophet, is gone?

We first need to recall, on an elementary level, what elections are for. They aren’t only about showing up, particularly for marginalized communities; the people from those areas don’t get honorary mention in Congress if their candidate doesn’t win. It also is not about the mere honor of exercising the franchise. “Voting is not about participation. Voting is about power. And we have got to reframe that,” says Black Voters Matter Fund co-founder LaTosha Brown.  

We have seen truth and reconciliation about atrocities in other nations because there has been a change in power. The process helped South Africa strike down the political remnants of apartheid; Rwanda established a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission to heal the nation after the 1994 genocide. No such things happen in America, however. How do we ever get to our truth and reconciliation if all we ever do is celebrate the most moral of us, like a star we’ll never reach? 

“We never demanded that people actually be held accountable for the Native genocide, for slavery, for lynching, for segregation,” says Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which erected the memorial to the legacy of American lynching victims, in Montgomery, Alabama.  

It’s this American history, says Stevenson, that is so vital to understand in the context of continuing Lewis’ struggle. “The North wins the Civil War, but the South wins the narrative war,” he says. “Because the 13th Amendment doesn’t say anything about ending white supremacy. . . . What John Lewis does in 1965 is try to help America recover from a century of distortion and abuse and discrimination, and he got bloodied for it.” 

Of course, in 2020, blood is still being spilled in American streets in the name of black freedom. Lewis, suffering from stage 4 pancreatic cancer, made it out to Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., on June 7th, less than a week after the president had peaceful protesters tear-gassed — protesters carrying out Lewis’ marching orders: “Get in the way,” he would always say, and into “good trouble” for the sake of holding this nation accountable. But the change that he and modern organizers seek won’t come without the kind of political shifts that go well beyond electing a black president. 

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., (center) is escorted into a mass meeting at Fish University in Nashville. His colleagues are, left to right, John Lewis, national chairman of the Student Non-Violent Committee and Lester McKinnie, on of the leaders in the racial demonstrations in Nashville recently. King gave the main address to a packed crowd. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Lewis at Fish University in Nashville, with Martin Luther King Jr., CT Vivian (second from left), and activist Lester McKinnie (far right), in May 1964.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

“We’re in this unique role of trying to recover from systematic human rights violations without a change in power,” says Stevenson. “That’s the brilliance of people like John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and Dr. King, is that they engaged in a kind of moral reckoning. And they were able to use that moral witness to shift the assessment of what’s right. But because the power hasn’t changed, we have to carry forward this commitment to truth and justice. That’s, for me, central to what has to happen in America.”

There are particular challenges to achieving that power shift. McConnell recently told The Wall Street Journal that Democratic complaints about voter suppression were “nonsense.” And the deployment of unmarked federal forces to suppress civil rights protests in cities like Portland, Oregon, are perhaps only a harbinger of what Trump is willing to do to stay in office. On July 30th, the morning of Lewis’ funeral, Trump even floated the decidedly unconstitutional idea of delaying the election.

The severity of Trump’s threat is why the celebration of Lewis’ legacy cannot be limited to commemoration. “If you have a law that means black voters are having their ballots rejected at twice the rates of whites, that’s a problem,” says Marc Elias, a voting rights lawyer. “That’s a legal problem. That’s a moral problem. That’s a legislative problem. We need to start treating it as such.”

Lewis understood better than most that the depth of the problem meant it had to be fought on multiple fronts — in the streets, in the statehouse, in the courthouse, everywhere. He realized shortly after the assassinations of his friend Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that he could pursue politics without disempowering his activist voice.  

“I think that’s what’s powerful about his legacy,” Stevenson says. “People hear Malcolm X say ‘By any means necessary,’ and they always assume something violent and destructive, when in fact, ‘by any means necessary’ means some of us have to actually become lawyers and advocate within the strictures of the legal system. Some of us have to become journalists and give voice to important perspectives that have never been heard. Some of us have to become teachers and help at-risk children.”

Not only did Lewis model how to maintain an activist spirit on Capitol Hill — arrested twice for protesting the Darfur genocide and later leading sit-ins advocating for immigration reform and gun control legislation — but he also showed how to remain scrupulous, maintaining his integrity throughout his more than three decades in a town known for stripping it away.   

Moreover, Lewis was about refocusing Americans on the fact that there is, inherently, an idea worth saving at the root of this great and terrible nation, fraught with faults, created by people whose prejudices withheld the United States from maximizing its own potential. “The founders of this country created a new nation that was based on the ideas of this thing called a ‘democracy,’ ” says Brown. “When in fact, none of them had internalized the true meaning and value of democracy.” 

Spotlighting that contradiction and correcting it encapsulates Lewis’ work, and is why President Obama, in his eulogy at Lewis’ funeral, rightly said that “America was built by John Lewises. He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals. And someday, when we do finish that long journey toward freedom, when we do form a more perfect union — whether it’s years from now, or decades, or even if it takes another two centuries — John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.” 

In the wake of his loss, we have a new standard by which to judge not just ourselves but the candidates who claim the intent to represent us. If we don’t have elected officials who understand and embrace the Lewisian framework of American redemption, one that demonstrates the conviction behind their words and prioritizes morality and compassion in the policy they create, then why support them? Rev. Barber said that we should apply a moral filter to forthcoming bills, “and if it’s killing people’s dreams and killing people’s hopes and killing people’s equal opportunities and civil rights, and literally killing people because that bill limits or destroys access to opportunities of justice, then like John Lewis, while we are living, we have to be against it.”

SELMA, AL - MARCH 4: Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (L) speaks with U.S. congressman John Lewis (D-GA) before addressing a crowd gathered for the commemoration of the 1965 Voting Rights March at Brown Chapel AME Church March 4, 2007 in Selma, Alabama. During the 1965 march, which was to go from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, police used tear gas and beat back the marchers when they reached the Pettus Bridge. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Lewis and then-Senator Barack Obama in 2007 at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama, for the commemoration of the 1965 Voting Rights March .

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The example of John Lewis was not set to invite idolatry, but emulation. He wanted fellowship, not followers. Elias, the voting rights lawyer, seemed a bit staggered, and rightfully so, when asked how we might all go about walking shoulder to shoulder with Lewis. “I sometimes ask what I would be willing to sacrifice to move the country forward,” he says. “Most people, it’s easy to be in the comfort of your home and air conditioning and internet service, [and] to say that you are committed to something. But what John Lewis taught us was that to really be committed, you need to be willing to sacrifice. Not in an abstract way, but a real concrete way. As we face down the fall election, that is what I think about. If he was willing to do everything that he did, then what are the rest of us doing that we’re willing to sacrifice?”

 

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