Remembering Representative John Lewis, the Conscience of Congress Part III: Legislation on Voting Rights, Writings, and Honors and Awards, and Commemoration
“…So we are also going to have to remember what John said: “If you don’t do everything you can to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You have to give it all you have.” As long as young people are protesting in the streets, hoping real change takes hold, I’m hopeful but we cannot casually abandon them at the ballot box. Not when few elections have been as urgent, on so many levels, as this one. We cannot treat voting as an errand to run if we have some time. We have to treat it as the most important action we can take on behalf of democracy.
Like John, we have to give it all we have.” – President Barack Obama, “My Statement on the Passing of Rep. John Lewis”
John Lewis never abandoned his original calling in the fight for voting rights, which he strove to improve upon while in Congress. With voter suppression efforts currently underway to interfere with the general election of 2020, his proposed measures are especially salient. He introduced multiple Voter Empowerment bills, the most recent aimed at assuring access to voting through the following means: making it a federal criminal code is amended to prohibit hindering, interfering with, or preventing voter registration, requiring states to allow early voting and voting by mail without additional conditions, making grants to states for poll worker recruitment and training, reauthorizing support for state and local governments to ensure voting access for individuals with disabilities, amending the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is to extend the guarantee of voting residency to family members of absent military personnel, enhancing voter confidence and increasing accessibility, prohibiting a person from knowingly and willfully attempting to or depriving or defrauding the residents of a state of the right to vote by the communication of election-related information that is known to be materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent and increasing the penalty for voter intimidation, and establishing minimum notification requirements regarding voters affected by polling place changes. Frequently and unfortunately these bills remained in the introductory stage. He also introduced bills regarding protections for homeless persons, commemoration of the anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the role that it played in ensuring the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and recognition of SNCC and the role the organization played in ensuring the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 2013, bearing in mind the persistent effort of civil rights activists, the unthinkable happened. In deciding the case Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down Section V of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. Prior to this decision, Section V had been renewed every 5 years by Congress to ensure the voting rights of disenfranchised communities, particularly in the South. Remember all of the struggles the Freedom Riders faced in the pursuit of voting rights for Black people? Chief Justice Roberts stated in his opinion that the “blight of racial discrimination in voting” that had “infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century,” had been essentially resolved and declare there were no longer impediments to voting. Roberts further stated, “There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions … Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg notoriously dissented, writing: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Since the gutting of the VRA, 1,688 polling places have been closed, mostly in southern states, with 39% being closed from 2012-2018. The decision had been a travesty of justice and affront to all of the work civil rights activists had achieved, the repercussions of which are experienced to this day.
John Lewis received numerous recognitions for both his civil rights activism and work in Congress. Among the many honors, he was the recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolence Peace Prize (1975), the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation Profile in Courage Award (2001), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Spingarn Medal (2002), and the First LBJ Liberty and Justice for All Award, given to him by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation (2010). A future United States Navy replenishment oiler will be named after Lewis, and he was awarded the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center (2016). He has been awarded more that 50 honorary degrees, including Doctor of Law, LL. D (Legum Doctor), Public Service, and Humane Letters from prestigious institutions such as Yale University, Boston University, Emory University, Brown University, and Harvard University to name a few. Most memorable is the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2011. President Obama, when presenting the award to Lewis, stated:
“There’s a quote inscribed over a doorway in Nashville, where students first refused to leave lunch counters 51 years ago this February. And the quote said, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” It’s a question John Lewis has been asking his entire life. It’s what led him back to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma after he had already been beaten within an inch of his life days before. It’s why, time and again, he faced down death so that all of us could share equally in the joys of life. It’s why all these years later, he is known as the Conscience of the United States Congress, still speaking his mind on issues of justice and equality. And generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind — an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”
John Lewis’s memoir entitled “Walking With the Wind – A Memoir of the Movement” was published in 1988. In 2012, he released the book “Across That Bridge” which reflected upon his time in the civil rights movement. John Lewis was also the recipient of the National Book Award (2016) and the Coretta Scott King Book Award (2017) (shared with his co-author Andrew Aydin) for a graphic novel trilogy recounting the stories of his experiences during the Civil Rights movement entitled “The March”. A documentary covering his life called “John Lewis: Good Trouble” (2020) is currently available on Netflix.
As with many icons whose lives appear immortal because of their infatigable pursuit of their purpose, and longevity we sometimes take for granted, the nation was saddened to learn that our hero John Lewis was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer in December 2019. The world would then mourn when Lewis passed on July 17, 2020 at the age of 80 after a six-month battle with the disease. He died on the same day as civil rights legend C.T. Vivian. A funeral procession for Congressman John Lewis carried him in a horse-drawn casket. The procession made its way from Selma, Alabama following a funeral in the historic Brown Chapel AME Church to Atlanta, GA, crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge, and then stopped for John Lewis to lie in state in the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. John Lewis then was honored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who ensured that he lie in state at the United States Capitol Rotunda, and provided a commemoration equal in honor to that of any statesmen previously memorialized in such a distinguished ceremony. Lewis was the first African American lawmaker bestowed such an honor in the Rotunda, and Pelosi reminded all that Lewis had been the “Conscience of the Congress”. His casket was then transported to Atlanta, Georgia where he lay in state at the Georgia State Capitol. A funeral service at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church for Lewis featured notable speakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and Former President Jimmy Carter, unable to travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, sent a statement to be read during the funeral service. He was then interred at the historic South-View Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia. When John Lewis passed, the “Big Six” was with us no more, yet we eternally remain grateful for the legacy they all leave behind.
Prior to his death, in December 2019 John Lewis Lewis presided over the House as it passed legislation to reinstate the Voting Rights Act. The legislation was refused by the Republican controlled Senate. After his passing, the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (S 4263) on July 22, 2020 to restore the Voting Rights Act that had been gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. Sponsored by 47 Democrats and Republican Lisa Murkowski, the law would would require that any state with a history of voting discrimination within the past 25 years seek federal approval before making any changes to its voting procedures, and mandate that any state, regardless of its history, obtain clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C. before making any changes that would tend to burden voters of color such as strict voter ID laws or closing polling places in areas with large numbers of minority voters. If passed, the law would assure equal access and rights in voting for all Americans, including disenfranchised people of the country, as John Lewis had so bravely sacrificed to make possible throughout his years of activism and his legislative career.
Also after his passing, petitions to have the Edmund Pettus bridge renamed to the John Lewis Bridge began to circulate. The Board of Fairfax County Public Schools announced that Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, Virginia would be renamed John R. Lewis High School. The legacy of John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, will live on just as his vision of a country embodying the tenets of liberty and equal justice for all.
Advice in his own words:
“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim, or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant. Lean toward the whispers of your own heart, discover the universal truth, and follow its dictates. Know that the truth always leads to love and the perpetuation of peace. Its products are never bitterness and strife. Clothe yourself in the work of love, in the revolutionary work of nonviolent resistance against evil. Anchor the eternity of love in your own soul and embed this planet with its goodness. Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won. Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice. And if you follow your truth down the road to peace and the affirmation of love, if you shine like a beacon for all to see, then the poetry of all the great dreamers and philosophers is yours to manifest in a nation, a world community, and a Beloved Community that is finally at peace with itself.” – John Lewis, “Across That Bridge”
To rephrase, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.” – John Lewis (February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020)
…And in the spirit of the great John Lewis, GO VOTE!
Rest in Power Congressman John Lewis.