This op-ed was originally published in The Hill on July 22, 2020
HONORING JOHN LEWIS’S VOTING RIGHTS LEGACY
By James E. Clyburn
July 22, 2020
The country lost a hero, our civil rights movements lost an icon, and I lost a very special friend on July 17. I first met John Robert Lewis in October 1960, nearly 60 years ago; we were at an organizing meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Since that weekend, our lives intersected several times in our “pursuit of a more perfect Union.”
We eventually reunited more than 27 years ago as members of the U.S. House of Representatives, which was made possible by the foundations we laid – John as a community organizer at the Southern Regional Council and director of the Voter Education Project (VEP) in Atlanta, Ga., and I as director of two community development projects and chair of the VEP in Charleston, S.C.
I have been asked often in the past week about my dear friend’s legacy. It is true that John was one of the most visible and vocal allies in Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent civil rights activities of the 1960s. Many of us adopted nonviolence as a tactic, but John internalized the concept and it became his way of life. He was the personification of the collective activism of that era.
It gives me pause when I hear people refer to the student activities of the 1960s as THE civil rights movement. There have always been civil rights movements. They are inevitable when and wherever we find people marginalized or being treated as “less than.” The uprising of Denmark Vesey, the Stono Rebellion and the Niagara Movement are just a few civil rights movements that come to mind. In every one of them there was at least one who seemed to stand head and shoulders above all others. And so it was with those of us who participated in various iterations of the 1960s civil rights activities.
John was 25 years old on March 7, 1965, when he was beaten within an inch of his life marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. He was at the front of that march of more than 600 people seeking voting rights for black Alabamians. At the time, only 2 percent of Blacks were registered to vote in Selma because of creative devices imposed by Jim Crow laws.
This son of Alabama sharecroppers and those courageous foot-soldiers encountered scores of law enforcers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan who later served in the U.S. Senate. John’s skull was fractured by a policeman wielding a nightstick, and he nearly died on that bridge. The episode became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
It was after Bloody Sunday that President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and pushed for passage of a Voting Rights Act. President Johnson ended his speech with the title of a protest song that had been adopted by the ’60s movements. The song, “We Shall Overcome,” may have been popularized in the ’60s but it came out of an earlier civil rights struggle that took place during a union dispute at the American Tobacco Company in Charleston, S.C.
Bloody Sunday shocked the conscience of the American people. Congress mustered the will to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and it was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965. The Act required the Department of Justice to pre-clear any changes made to voter registration and polling locations in states and localities that had historically discriminated against voters of color. This legislation was critical to ensuring the fundamental right of all Americans to participate in our democracy – and that “government of the people, by the people,” extended to all the people.
But a Supreme Court ruling in 2013, Shelby County vs. Holder, rendered the Voting Rights Act of 1965 almost useless. The decision invalidated pre-clearance. The devastating impact was that jurisdictions like John’s home state of Georgia, my home state of South Carolina and 14 other states no longer needed approval to change their voting laws. John, like many of us, witnessed his state’s purging of voter rolls, imposition of strict voter ID requirements, and the closing of polling places.
John Lewis took a familiar place in the new fight for voting rights, this time as a member of Congress. He was a leading voice on H.R. 4 – the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, which responded to another Supreme Court decision. In the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court ruled that the formulae in the 1965 act were outdated and suggested that Congress could update the formula used to determine which states and localities should still be subject to pre-clearance.
The Democratic House initiated an effort led by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) to hold hearings nationwide to collect data to construct a new formula. That work was the basis for H.R. 4., introduced by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.). It still awaits action in the Senate, eight months later.
I find it challenging that people are quick to support eliminating discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation, but they don’t advocate with the same veracity for our most precious and powerful right – the vote. John Lewis believed that “The right to vote is precious and almost sacred, and one of the most important blessings of our democracy. We must be vigilant in protecting that blessing.” There is no better way to honor the life and legacy of a life well-lived.