Walking in the footsteps of giants — honoring the legacy of Rep. John R. Lewis

For over half a century, we have returned to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to honor the extraordinary sacrifices made by ordinary Americans as they sought to hold our nation accountable to its highest ideals of justice and equality for all. This year we will do the same, but we will do so without my dear friend, mentor, and hero, Rep. John LewisJohn LewisProgressives put Democrats on defense Democrats face mounting hurdles to agenda Democrats see opportunity as states push new voting rules MORE. Though I am reminded daily of the sacrifices made by John and the known and unknown foot soldiers on that bridge 56 years ago, this commemoration feels unmistakably different.

Each year, John would lead a congressional delegation onto the bridge where he was bludgeoned for the sacred right to vote. Every time, you felt like you were there with him, overwhelmed with emotion and grounded by courage as he stood before the brigade of police officers telling him and the rest to turn back.

Frail from his cancer, I vividly remember John’s final charge on the apex of the bridge one last time in March. He said, “They marched to dramatize the need for the rights of all us to participate in a democratic process. They marched in an orderly, peaceful, non-violent fashion and were beaten, tear-gassed and bull-whipped. They gave a little blood on this bridge to help redeem the soul of America.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The horrific events of Bloody Sunday brought the reality of the fight for voting rights to living rooms across our country. It was there, in my hometown, where ordinary Americans dared to follow through on their extraordinary commitment to justice and equality for all, that led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Once again, we find ourselves at another great inflection point in our nation’s history where the future of voting rights hangs in the balance.

As a result of November’s historic electoral victories, many Republican state legislators, members of Congress, and far-right interest groups are working overtime to keep voters from the ballot box by introducing hundreds of new voting restrictions across the country. As a result of conspiracy theories and lies about the 2020 election, we are witnessing the most concerted effort to dismantle the Voting Rights Act in decades. Make no mistake, the fruits of the sacrifices made by my fellow Alabamians on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 56 years ago are at risk. Every American should be alarmed.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, legislators have already introduced three times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to this time last year. In just two months, 250 restrictions have been introduced in 43 states. These alarming tactics range from voter purge practices to ending mail-in voting, all which have been shown to disproportionately disadvantage Black and economically vulnerable communities. This should alarm every American.

Though these discriminatory practices may not require us to count how many jellybeans are in a jar, or to list every county in Alabama, the transgression is equally alarming. It reminds us that despite the sacrifices of those that precede us, old battles have become new again. Voter suppression is still alive and well.

ADVERTISEMENT

We must remember that the actions of the footsoldiers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 was fundamentally an act of patriotism. They were not trying to overthrow the government. They believed in their core that our country could do better and that the way to get there was through peaceful protest and democracy.

As direct beneficiaries of their legacy, we owe it to them to do more than participate in a one-day commemorative march. We must recommit ourselves to the ideals of equality and justice for which they fought — the right of every American to vote in our democracy. Their cause has become our cause, too.

That is why this year, I will re-introduce H.R. 4, The John Robert Lewis Voting Rights Act, to fully restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is my hope that every member of Congress who has ever come to Selma with Rep. John Lewis will vote to restore the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. I know nothing would bring John more joy than to know his life’s work continues.

John truly summed it up best, “In the face of injustice, we have a moral obligation to say something, to do something!” Can’t you hear him?

May we all be renewed by this year’s Bloody Sunday commemoration to recommit ourselves to fully restoring the Voting Rights Act for which the Foot Soldiers marched. Let our words and actions stir the soul of our nation!

Sewell represents Alabama’s 7th District.