Today, civil rights legend and Georgia Rep. John Lewis will lie in state outside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Lewis, the longtime Democratic congressman from Atlanta and last living speaker from the historic March on Washington, died July 17 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 80.
While Lewis dedicated his life to advancing freedom, ending racial discrimination, and ensuring equality for all, we will also remember him as a lifelong champion of voting rights. He believed that voting is precious – almost sacred – and the most powerful non-violent tool we have in our democracy.
But, oh – if John Lewis could only have stayed among us a little longer! Now, in this time of political strife and social upheaval, we need his strength, wisdom, and encouragement more than ever.
In a few more weeks, we will witness the culmination of a year-long celebration of the 19th Amendment, the landmark legislation that gave women the right to vote 100 years ago. If he were with us, he would join us in extolling the virtues of the 19th Amendment, which were many. However, in classic Lewis style, which had the polish of a practiced orator, the accuracy of a scholar, and cadence of a southern Baptist preacher, he would respectfully explain that the legislation fell short.
While ratification of the 19th Amendment expanded voting rights, it did not address the racial terrorism that prevented African Americans in southern states from voting, regardless of sex. Women like Fannie Lou Hammer, Ella Baker, and Diane Nash courageously continued the fight for voting rights, culminating with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And, if we had magical powers to keep him on this earth a little longer, he would remind us in his most solemn tone, that he is worried that our voting rights today are at risk. He would say that the right to vote, which many people died to secure, is quietly and gradually being blocked in several states, as governments enact new voting requirements, purge voter rolls, close voting locations, and spread misinformation. He would back up his claims with fact, not hyperbole, and send us to check his sources, as many nonpartisan law and policy institutes that stand for the rule of law are tracking these actions.
Lewis would go on to share a glimmer of hope, found in new legislation that will stop these violations and strengthen protections intended by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed in the House in December 2019 and was ceremoniously reintroduced as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in July of this year, in recognition of Lewis’ work.
His allies are saying that naming bridges, streets, and schools honors Lewis’ legacy, but showing support for the VRA Act’s enactment is even better. We don’t disagree.
He would want us to be unceasing in insisting that Congress, and our state legislatures reverse any and all practices that diminish voters’ rights. And, come November, he would expect us to be busy doing what he fought for all his life – exercising our right to VOTE, and fighting for the rights of all people to participate in this great democracy.
But alas – he left us all too soon. While his voice may be silenced, his deeds and words of inspiration remain:
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
We have come a great distance, and each of us must confirm in ourselves that we are not going back. We want to move forward to create a more fair and open society that gives an equal voice to every citizen.”