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John Lewis's Long Fight for Voting Rights | The Nation

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John Lewis's Long Fight for Voting Rights

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Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

On March 7, 1965, John Lewis threw an apple, an orange, a toothbrush, some toothpaste and two books into his backpack, and prepared to lead a fifty-four-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The impromptu march was organized to call national attention to the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South and to protest the death of a young civil rights activist shot by police during a demonstration in a neighboring town. 

Ari Berman is working on a history of voting rights for Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

About the Author

Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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Lewis’s group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had been trying to register voters in Selma since 1963. They hadn’t gotten very far. At the time of the march, only 383 of the 15,000 black residents in Selma’s Dallas County were registered to vote. At 25, Lewis had already been arrested twenty times by white segregationists and badly beaten during Freedom Rides in South Carolina and Montgomery. 

On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Lewis and Hosea Williams, a top aide to Martin Luther King Jr., led some 600 local residents marching in two single-file lines. The streets of downtown Selma were eerily quiet. “There was no singing, no shouting—just the sound of scuffling feet,” Lewis wrote in his memoir. “There was something holy about it, as if we were walking down a sacred path. It reminded me of Gandhi’s march to the sea.” Lewis thought he would be arrested, but he had no idea that the ensuing events would dramatically alter the arc of American history. 

As they crossed the Alabama River on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama state troopers descended on the marchers with batons and bullwhips; some demonstrators were trampled by policemen on horseback, and the air was choked with tear gas. Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull from a clubbing, thought he was going to die. That evening, the prime-time network news played extensive footage of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” Those scenes “struck with the force of instant historical icon,” wrote historian Taylor Branch. 

* * *

Eight days later, President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act before a joint session of Congress. “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country,” Johnson said. On August 6, 1965, a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, the VRA became law. It quickly became known as the most important piece of civil rights legislation and one of the most consequential laws ever passed by Congress. The VRA led to the abolition of literacy tests and poll taxes; made possible the registration of millions of minority voters by replacing segregationist registrars with federal examiners; forced states with a history of voting discrimination to clear electoral changes with the federal government; and laid the foundation for generations of minority elected officials, including Barack Obama. Lewis has the pen LBJ gave him after signing the VRA framed in his Atlanta home and a bust of the thirty-sixth president in his Washington office. “When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act,” Lewis said on a recent trip to Alabama, “he helped free and liberate all of us.” 

Lewis, now a thirteen-term congressman from Atlanta, was a leading participant in nearly all of the pivotal events of the civil rights movement—the Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the Mississippi Freedom Summer. But his signature achievement is the VRA. Of all the surviving leaders of the movement, Lewis is most responsible for its passage and its overwhelming reauthorization four times by Congress. He is the soul of the voting rights movement and its most eloquent advocate. So many of his comrades from the civil rights years have died or drifted away, but Lewis remains as committed as ever to the fight to protect the right to vote. 
”I feel like it’s part of my calling,” he says. 

On March 3, Lewis returned to Selma for the forty-eighth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Thirty members of Congress accompanied him—part of a pilgrimage to Alabama that Lewis has led since 2000—along with Vice President Joseph Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Lewis locked arms with Biden and Luci Baines Johnson, LBJ’s youngest daughter, and once again marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Fifteen thousand people followed, some of whom would continue all the way to Montgomery. “Woke up this morning with my mind/ stayed on freedom,” activists sang as they climbed the bridge. At the top, high above the Alabama River, Lewis grabbed a bullhorn and retold the story of Bloody Sunday. “You have to tell the story over and over again to educate people,” Lewis told me. “It is my obligation to do what I can to complete what we started many, many years ago,” he said in Selma. 

Every return to Selma is meaningful for Lewis, but this trip had special significance. Just four days before, Lewis had sat inside the Supreme Court as the justices heard a challenge to Section 5 of the VRA, which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting, primarily in the South, to clear election-related changes with the federal government. (A decision in that case, Shelby County v. Holder, is expected at the end of June.) Lewis calls Section 5 the “heart and soul” of the law, and was deeply disturbed by the arguments from the Court’s conservative justices. “It appeared to me that several members of the Court didn’t have a sense of the history, what brought us to this point, and not just the legislative history and how it came about,” Lewis said afterward in his congressional office, which is decorated with iconic photographs of the civil rights movement. “They seemed to be somewhat indifferent to why people fought so hard and so long to get the act passed in the first place. And they didn’t see the need.” 

Justice Antonin Scalia said the law represented a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that the federal government is discriminating against states like Alabama more than Alabama is discriminating against its own citizens. Chief Justice John Roberts implied that Massachusetts has a bigger problem with voting discrimination than Mississippi. Clarence Thomas, who as is customary didn’t speak, had already declared Section 5 unconstitutional in a previous decision. 

Lewis called Scalia’s statement “shocking and unbelievable” and said he almost cried when he heard it. “So what happened to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments?” he asked, shaking his head. “What happened to the whole struggle to make it possible in the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first, for every person to be able to cast a free and open vote?” 

Forty-eight years after Bloody Sunday, Lewis is once again in the fight of his life, with conservative officeholders resurrecting voter suppression methods not seen since the 1960s and Supreme Court justices asserting that the federal efforts to combat historic discrimination in voting—reforms that Lewis nearly died to win—are no longer needed. In January, he filed an amicus brief with the Court opposing the Shelby County challenge. It noted “the high price many paid for the enactment of the Voting Rights Act and the still higher cost we might yet bear if we prematurely discard one of the most vital tools of our democracy.” 

* * *

Lewis grew up a hundred miles southeast of Selma, in the rural Alabama Black Belt near Troy. He was the third of ten kids; his parents farmed cotton, corn and peanuts. Their farmhouse had no electricity, running water or insulation. He was a bookish, devout child who wore ties and preached to his chickens, sneaking away from the fields to attend school. His life changed when, at 15, he heard about the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955 and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. (who quickly became his idol) preaching on the radio. 

While at college in Nashville, Lewis played an instrumental role in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides that hastened the demise of Jim Crow. “I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army,” he says. He soon became the movement’s field commander, assuming chairmanship of SNCC in 1963. “John was probably the most committed person I’ve ever met,” says South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, who met Lewis at a SNCC conference in 1960. A lifelong adherent of peaceful resistance, Lewis saw his mission as “bringing the Gandhian way into the belly of the Black Belt.” 

Lewis became head of the Voter Education Project in 1970, which took the lead in registering black voters in the South after the VRA’s passage. The VEP registered 2 million voters from 1970 to 1977, including Lewis’s mother and father. The group distributed posters that read: “Hands that pick cotton…can now pick our elected officials.” In 1986, Lewis won election to the US House from Atlanta, defeating his close friend Julian Bond. “Vote for the tugboat, not the showboat” was one of his slogans. Lewis became known as “the conscience of Congress,” with an unmatched stature on civil rights. “I don’t think I’ve seen anybody in the movement that carries the moral cachet that John Lewis has,” says Clyburn. 

Lewis initially endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008, based on their close friendship, but viewed Obama’s election as a culmination of what he and so many others had put their lives on the line for. “Because of what you did, Barack Obama is the president of the United States,” Lewis said in Selma following Obama’s 2008 victory, on the forty-fourth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. 

Lewis knew the president would be attacked because of his race, but the full-scale assault on voting rights that followed the 2010 midterm elections caught him and other movement veterans off-guard. More than a dozen states, including critical battlegrounds like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, adopted new laws to restrict access to the ballot—all of which disproportionately affected communities of color. “I was naïve to think voting rights were untouchable,” says Bond, former chair of the NAACP. “I didn’t dream that Republicans would be as bold and as racist as they are.” 

Lewis saw the restrictions as an obvious ploy to suppress the power of the young and minority voters who formed the core of Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” in 2008. “It was a deliberate, well-greased and organized attempt to stop this progress,” he says. “They saw all these people getting registered as a threat to power.” 

In July 2011, when few were paying attention to the issue, Lewis delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor about the right to vote. “Voting rights are under attack in America,” Lewis told the nearly empty chamber in his deep baritone. “There’s a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.” He called voter-ID laws a poll tax—a year before Attorney General Holder would make the same comparison—and recalled how, before passage of the VRA, blacks who attempted to register in the South were required to guess the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of jellybeans in a jar. “We must not step backward to another dark period in our history,” Lewis warned. “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society.” To combat voter suppression, Lewis sponsored the Voter Empowerment Act, which would add millions of voters to the rolls and increase turnout by modernizing registration, mandating early voting and adopting Election Day registration. 

On the last night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, which took place just twenty-five miles from where Lewis was beaten 
as a Freedom Rider in Rock Hill, South Carolina, he implored the faithful to “march to the polls like never, ever before.” By that time, civil rights activists, the Obama administration and the judiciary had heeded his warning on voting rights, as ten major restrictive laws were blocked in court under the VRA and federal and state protections. “The election of 2012,” Lewis said on MSNBC, “dramatized…the need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.” 

Lewis spent the pivotal Sunday before the election campaigning in Ohio for Obama. The Ohio GOP had tried to prevent early voting three days before the election, but the Obama campaign had successfully sued to reinstate those days. As he approached the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati, Lewis saw the line of voters stretching for nearly a mile around city blocks, with hundreds waiting for hours in the damp cold. “This is very, very moving,” Lewis said as he walked the line. “This is living testimony that people who tried to make it hard and difficult and who put up stumbling blocks and roadblocks—it’s just not working.” 

The successful resistance to voter suppression may be the most important story of the 2012 election. Compared with 2008, 1.7 million more blacks, 1.4 million more Hispanics and 550,000 more Asians went to the polls, versus 2 million fewer whites. The turnout rate among black voters exceeded that of whites for the first time on record, according to the Census Bureau. While the turnout rate fell among nearly every demographic group, the largest increase came from blacks 65 and over. Those, like Lewis, who had lived through the days when merely trying to register could get you killed were the people most determined to defend their rights last year. 

Yet Lewis viewed Obama’s re-election as only a temporary victory, given the challenge to Section 5 before the Supreme Court. The mood in Selma during this year’s anniversary of Bloody Sunday was more somber than celebratory. “Here we are, forty-eight years after all you did, and we’re still fighting?” Biden said in Selma. “In 2011, ‘12 and ‘13? We were able to beat back most of those attempts in the election of 2012, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.” After Holder cited the continued importance of Section 5 in combating discrimination, the crowd at the foot of the bridge chanted, in what had to be a first, “Section 5! Section 5!”

“When it comes to voting rights,” says Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, “you realize the past isn’t the past.”

* * *

On May 20, 1961, Lewis and two dozen Freedom Riders traveling through the South to desegregate interstate bus travel were assaulted by a frenzied mob at the Greyhound station in Montgomery. Lewis was struck over the head with a Coca-Cola crate and left lying unconscious in a pool of blood. The Freedom Riders sought refuge at the First Baptist Church, disguising themselves as members of the choir to avoid police scrutiny. Three thousand white supremacists surrounded the church the next night and hurled Molotov cocktails through the stained-glass windows. “That night was unbelievable,” Lewis recalls. “I thought some of us would die.” After tortured deliberation, President John Kennedy sent in federal marshals to escort the Freedom Riders to safety.

This past March 2, when Lewis returned to First Baptist Church with 200 guests, Chief Kevin Murphy, head of the Montgomery Police Department, unexpectedly apologized to him. “We enforced unjust laws,” Murphy said. It was the first apology Lewis had ever received from a law enforcement official, after forty arrests and countless near-death experiences. They embraced, as the congregation cheered and wept, and Murphy gave Lewis his badge. “Chief Murphy, my brother, 
I accept your apology,” Lewis responded. “I don’t think I’m worthy of this.” Then he joked, “Actually, do you think I could get another?” Lewis kept the badge in his pocket for days. “I want to say to all of you here, it shows the power of love, the power of peace, the power of nonviolence,” he said. 

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The Montgomery Advertiser featured Murphy’s apology on its front page. Next to it, however, was a story about how, if the Supreme Court overturns Section 5, Republicans would likely dismantle the majority-black legislative districts protected under the act, which illustrates the South’s continuing racial divide. Obama, the article noted, won 95 percent of the black vote in Alabama last year, but only 15 percent of the white vote. “Whites won’t vote for blacks in Alabama,” said State Senator Hank Sanders of Selma. “That’s the state of race relations.” 

Indeed, despite powerful moments of reconciliation, the South is far from a post-racial utopia. Six of the nine states fully covered by Section 5, all in the South, passed new voting restrictions after the 2010 election. “Section 5,” write law professors Christopher Elmendorf and Douglas Spencer, “is remarkably well tailored to the geography of anti-black prejudice.” Of the ten states where anti-black stereotypes are most common, based on data from the National Annenberg Election Survey, six in the South are subject to Section 5. Racially polarized voting and “explicit anti-black attitudes,” according to an AP survey, have increased since 2008. Arkansas and Virginia have passed strict new voter-ID laws this year, while North Carolina is considering a slew of draconian restrictions. 

“Places like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, they forget recent history,” Lewis said. “We’re not talking about something that took place a hundred years ago, but a few short years ago. And some of it is still going on today. And if you get rid of Section 5 of the VRA, many of these places, whether it be state, county or town, will slip back into the habits of the past.” 

Against this backdrop, it’s shocking that the Supreme Court appears to be leaning toward overturning the centerpiece of the country’s most important civil rights law. Last year, Lewis found out that his great-great-grandfather had registered and voted after becoming an emancipated slave following the Civil War, during Reconstruction—something that Lewis could not do until 100 years later, after the passage of the VRA. He wept when he heard the news. It underscored how delicate the right to vote has been throughout American history. If the Court upholds Section 5, as it has in four prior opinions, Lewis’s legacy will be cemented. And if the Court eviscerates it, Lewis’s voice will be needed as never before. n

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