U.S. Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia, died at age 80 Friday night of pancreatic cancer. Long known as the “conscience of Congress,” Lewis was born into a family of sharecroppers in Alabama. He graduated from a Baptist seminary and from Fisk University in Tennessee, where he led sit-ins in Nashville. As age 23, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. As he recounts in his 1998 book, “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement” (co-authored by Michael D’Orso), Lewis honed his oratorical skills as a child, preaching to his family’s chickens.
In the prologue to “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis recounts one day when he was one of about 15 children who had to crowd into an aunt’s house as a storm unleashed its fury.
When the wind caused his aunt’s house to shake, and the floorboards began to lift, his aunt lined up the children to walk toward the corner of the floor that was rising, and then to walk back in the other direction when another end of the house began to lift. “And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies,” Lewis recalled.
Later, at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, “when America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams,” he wrote, “people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.”
“Children holding hands, walking with the wind,” Lewis wrote. “That is America to me — not just the movement for civil rights but the endless struggle to respond with decency, dignity and a sense of brotherhood to all the challenges that face us as a nation, as a whole.”
Decency. Dignity. Brotherhood. Those are some of the words that sum up John Lewis. Also, courage and kindness.
In this time when our nation is wrestling with whom should be honored, we’d suggest that John Lewis is the hero this nation needs. While he was arrested some 40 times as a civil rights activist — he was among the original Freedom Riders — and repeatedly physically assaulted, he remained steadfastly committed to nonviolence.
Indeed, he embodied dignity in the face of vicious opposition. He risked everything for justice, and persevered in his fight, choosing forgiveness over bitterness and encouraging young people to cause "good trouble." “Every positive thought we pass between us makes room for more light,” he wrote in a 2012 book. “That is why forgiveness and compassion must become more important principles in public life.”
He was one of the heroes the nation needed in the 1960s. And despite his death, he remains one of the heroes we will need moving forward, to remind us of what our priorities as a nation should be.
The cause of his life was voting rights — and he nearly gave his life to that cause on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. As he and other civil rights activists attempted to cross the bridge, possemen and Alabama state troopers on horseback — acting on orders from Gov. George Wallace — charged. A trooper struck Lewis in the head with a club twice, fracturing his skull. Even as he and the other marchers retreated, they were beaten with nightsticks and whips and sickened by tear gas.
The devastating images shocked the nation, touching “a nerve deeper than anything that had come before,” Lewis wrote in “Walking with the Wind.”
Days later, President Lyndon Johnson called on Congress to pass what would become known as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
That law banned discriminatory voting practices — such as literacy tests and poll taxes — in Southern states, appointed federal examiners to register voters, and required covered jurisdictions to obtain “preclearance” from the District Court for the District of Columbia or the U.S. attorney general for any new voting practices and procedures, as the website ourdocuments.gov explains.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 “was readopted and strengthened in 1970, 1975, and 1982,” that website notes.
Sadly, however, as the Brennan Center for Justice notes, the Voting Rights Act — which enshrines “the right of every citizen an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy” — was eviscerated by the Supreme Court in 2013, when it effectively eliminated preclearance, the mechanism that worked to block discrimination before it occurred.
Voter suppression efforts are many and varied, ranging from the elimination or curtailment of early voting, to the closing of polling places in minority and college communities, to excessively restrictive voter ID laws. They include, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, “mass purges of voter rolls and systemic disenfranchisement.”
A core principle of the LNP | LancasterOnline Editorial Board is that voting should be accessible and enthusiastically encouraged. Which is why we applauded bipartisan legislation enacted last year that enabled Pennsylvanians to apply for mail-in ballots without needing any excuse; extended the application period and submission deadline for mail-in ballots; and, crucially, extended by 15 days the period before an election when Pennsylvanians can register to vote.
But we are keenly aware that voting rights are being narrowed, not expanded, in other states.
So we’d urge Congressman Lloyd Smucker and U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey to honor Lewis by restoring the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And we urge readers to contact them in support of this.
There is talk of renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge for Lewis, which would be a fine gesture. But as U.S. Rep. James Clyburn said Sunday on CNN, a bill passed in the U.S. House in December — H.R. 4 — should be taken up in the Senate, and should be named the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.
“Words may be powerful,” Clyburn said, “but deeds are lasting.”
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy said Sunday he would reintroduce the Voting Rights Advancement Act and rename it for Lewis.
We need to honor Congressman Lewis by registering to vote and voting. And by causing “good trouble” to remedy injustice.
To Lewis, we leave the last word:
“The struggle for the right to vote has been a long, hard, tedious struggle to redeem the soul of America,” Lewis said on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act in 2015. “And the struggle is not over. We’re still trying to build a true democracy in our country to let every citizen have a voice in the political process.”