The great legacy of John Lewis

The great legacy of John Lewis
© Greg Nash

In my decades fighting for justice on Capitol Hill, I often traveled the same path as John LewisJohn LewisDemocrats lead in diversity in new Congress despite GOP gains Biden must look to executive action to fulfill vow to Black Americans The purposeful is political: Gen Z bowls over their doubters MORE. Whether it was advocating for more worker protection or the freedom to marry, he was always at my side during my 30 years as a lobbyist. His lifetime of fighting for equal access to voting in our elections has become the core mission of my job. I am dedicated to carrying on his legacy on voting rights. I will miss having him by my side and hearing his voice. He will remain one of the most remarkable men I have ever met.

I first got to know Congressman Lewis as a new lobbyist in Washington for the Association of Flight Attendants. My first major battle was against the tobacco industry. The flight attendants were sick and dying from working in airplanes filled with smoke. I was fighting for their health and the health of the travelers. Back then, the tobacco industry was dominant in Georgia, and Lewis did not vote with the union. We reminisced decades later about how difficult this battle was, long after the airplane smoking ban passed.

Congressman Lewis always graciously accepted my invitations to speak to my children and their friends. He would drive to the elementary school of my son in Maryland. He walked into the auditorium where the kids sat in a circle on the hard wooden floor then kneeled down to be eye to eye with the kids. For almost an hour, he stayed in that position talking to the kids about his life experiences and the power of the civil rights movement. He answered questions and was totally engaged with the enthralled group of children. I was also amazed by his flexibility once he stood back up again.


In another special encounter, he stopped briefly on Capitol Hill as former Representative Tammy Baldwin was escorting some folks from Rainbow Families. It was a Saturday morning, and the building was quiet. Despite his casual attire, he never missed the chance to be in touch with young people. He stopped and talked about the civil rights movement and his legislation. He talked about Bloody Sunday and about being attacked on Edmund Pettus Bridge. He silenced the distracted kids with his stories, passion, and commitment, urging them to join him in fighting for civil rights. He made them laugh by telling them to get into good trouble.

He was there for me as I fought for the freedom to marry. He accepted a request to film a video for the freedom to marry. Along with the film crew, we listened as he described the amazing pictures in his office showing the incredible moments of his life. It was the first time I got to hear him tell the story about preaching to chickens. His passion for fighting for people was present in each special encounter that I was privileged to have with him.

The last time I had a chance to see Congressman Lewis in person was at a press conference the day the Voting Rights Advancement Act was being voted on in the House late last year. It was shortly before he announced he had cancer. He spoke, as always, with passion and brilliance. Several people circled around him after to shake his hand. He was gracious and loving to everyone who wanted to speak to him. Later that day, he would hold the gavel to announce the passage of the bill. I was moved to tears when I saw him on television at the Black Lives Matter Plaza last month.

It is time to honor his memory by passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which will secure democracy and ensure that all Americans have the ability to participate in our elections. The bill would overturn the damage done by the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County versus Eric Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act. The ruling stopped years of progress for access to the ballot box. It has led to legal roadblocks. States passed felony disenfranchisement laws, mandated restrictive voter identification laws, and closed polling locations in many black and brown communities.

As Congressman Lewis famously declared, “We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call earth to make a lasting contribution to leave it a little better than we found it.” Fighting for the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act would carry on his great legacy as a civil rights leader. We can and must do it for him and the future of our country.

Jo Deutsch is director of legislative strategy with Campaign Legal Center.