Nearly a year after John Lewis’ death, voting rights remain in peril
Our late friend, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was often called the “conscience of Congress.” That hard-earned title represented years of sacrifice for voting and civil rights. As we approach the one-year anniversary of his death, Lewis’s legacy is being defiled by Republican state legislators who are passing new voter suppression laws, as well as by Republican members of Congress — and two Democrats in the Senate — who are resisting the necessary steps to get the job of protecting our voting rights done.
The struggle for access to the ballot box is as old as the country. Initially, the right to vote was restricted in most states to white property-owning men. By the 1850s, states allowed white men too poor to own property to vote. After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment extended the right to vote to Black men in 1865, but women had to wait another 50 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. Of course, the ability to vote was still systematically denied to millions of Black men and women until passage of the Voting Rights Act, a full 100 years after the Civil War came to an end.
The Voting Rights Act was introduced amid widespread disgust at violent attacks on voting rights activists, including Lewis. who bore the scars from those attacks for the rest of his life. The law gave the U.S. Department of Justice tools to prevent voting discrimination that had been brutally enforced in parts of the U.S.
Those tools were important and effective. And they were necessary, because efforts to erect barriers to Black voters never ended. Voter suppression ramped up after a historic turnout by Black voters helped make Barack Obama president. It intensified after the Supreme Court’s conservatives gutted Voting Rights Act provisions that gave the Justice Department power to review potentially discriminatory changes to voting procedures in jurisdictions with a history of suppression.
Shortly before that notorious ruling, I told journalist Ari Berman, “When it comes to voting rights, you realize the past isn’t the past.”
That is even more true today.
For decades, lies about white supremacy were used to deny Black Americans the right to vote. Now Trump spreads lies about his election being “stolen.” Legislators and governors are using those lies and the anger they have generated among Trump supporters to justify new restrictions on voting designed to keep Republicans in power.
Congress could stop voter suppression, but most Republicans in Congress don’t want to. The House of Representatives has passed the For the People Act and the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, which became the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act after his death. But Senate Republicans have used the filibuster to block the For the People Act just as Jim Crow apologists did in the 1960s. They are expected to do the same to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. They must not succeed.
John Lewis was nearly beaten to death for peacefully working to secure the right to vote. If anyone had earned the right to be angry or bitter about his political opponents, it was Lewis. But he was also a man of deep faith. He had faith in the American people, faith in the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence that he learned from Martin Luther King, Jr., and faith in the power of the vote.
“The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society,” he wrote in a powerful essay published just after his death. It was a message of hope to those he left behind, but also a call to action. “Democracy is not a state,” he wrote. “It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
Lewis often encouraged fellow activists and young people to make “good trouble” and “necessary trouble,” all while insisting that “the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way.” His integrity and joyfulness in the midst of struggle won him respect across the political spectrum.
But his willingness to extend grace to his political opponents does not mean we should grant Republican politicians cheap grace for praising Lewis at the same time they are actively undermining his life’s work. Their actions reveal that their words are empty and cynical.
We must not allow their cynicism to carry the day. Let us honor John Lewis by making good and necessary trouble to secure the right to vote for every American.
Ben Jealous is currently president of People For the American Way in Washington, D.C. and is the former national president & CEO of the NAACP. He is also a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.