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.
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.
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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.