Representative John Lewis of Georgia was brutally beaten while marching for the right to vote during “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. The brave activism of Lewis and so many others in the segregated South led to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the Democratic convention tonight, Lewis told his own story and strongly rebuked efforts by Republican legislators to restrict the right to vote since the 2010 election. Here are his remarks. They are worth quoting in full:
I first came to this city in 1961, the year Barack Obama was born. I was one of the thirteen original “Freedom Riders.” We were on a bus ride from Washington to New Orleans trying to test a recent Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination on buses crossing state lines and in the stations that served them. Here in Charlotte, a young African-American rider got off the bus and tried to get a shoeshine in a so-called white waiting room. He was arrested and taken to jail.
On that same day, we continued on to Rock Hill, South Carolina, about 25 miles. From here, when my seatmate, Albert Bigelow, and I tried to enter a white waiting room, we were met by an angry mob that beat us and left us lying in a pool of blood. Some police officers came up and asked us whether we wanted to press charges. We said, “No, we come in peace, love and nonviolence.” We said our struggle was not against individuals, but against unjust laws and customs. Our goal was true freedom for every American.
Since then, America has made a lot of progress. We are a different society than we were in 1961. And in 2008, we showed the world the true promise of America when we elected President Barack Obama. A few years ago, a man from Rock Hill, inspired by President Obama’s election, decided to come forward. He came to my office in Washington and said, “I am one of the people who beat you. I want to apologize. Will you forgive me?” I said, “I accept your apology.” He started crying. He gave me a hug. I hugged him back, and we both started crying. This man and I don’t want to go back; we don’t want to go back.
Brothers and sisters, do you want to go back? Or do you want to keep America moving forward? My dear friends, your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union. Not too long ago, people stood in unmovable lines. They had to pass a so-called literacy test, pay a poll tax. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. On another occasion, one was asked to count the jelly beans in a jar—all to keep them from casting their ballots.
Today it is unbelievable that there are Republican officials still trying to stop some people from voting. They are changing the rules, cutting polling hours and imposing requirements intended to suppress the vote. The Republican leader in the Pennsylvania House even bragged that his state’s new voter ID law is “gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state.” That’s not right. That’s not fair. And that is not just.
And similar efforts have been made in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina. I’ve seen this before. I’ve lived this before. Too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.
And we have come too far together to ever turn back. So Democrats, we must not be silent. We must stand up, speak up and speak out. We must march to the polls like never, ever before. We must come together and exercise our sacred right. And together, on November 6, we will re-elect the man who will lead America forward: President Barack Obama.
Earlier today I attended an event organized by the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute, where Lewis spoke. The overwhelming theme of the panel was how the voter suppression laws passed by Republicans in the past two years take us back to a frighteningly dark period in our country’s history. MSNBC host/Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry likened the fights of today to the post-Reconstruction era of 1880-1910, when white segregationists passed a slew of laws undermining the right to vote for newly emancipated black voters following the Civil War. “[Republicans] went back to the older playbook—you use the law to suppress the vote,” said NAACP President Ben Jealous, who called strict voter ID laws “the new poll tax.”
According to Susan Falck, a research associate at California State University–Northridge, twenty-nine laws restricting the right to vote were passed in the United States from 1865–1967. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, twenty-five laws restricting the right to vote have been passed from 2011–12. Eight of eleven states in the former confederacy have passed laws aimed at suppressing minority voters since the 2010 election. These are unbelievable statistics—and make one wonder why the likes of Lewis aren’t speaking in prime time.
Bill Clinton touched on this alarming trend at the end of his speech last night, saying “it is wrong to change voting procedures just to reduce the turnout of younger, poorer, minority and disabled voters.” Clinton forcefully attacked GOP voter suppression at greater length on Tuesday night during an event with the Arkansas Democratic Party.
Democratic Party leaders are belatedly recognizing the moral and political consequences of the war on voting—a subject Lewis knows all too well. Said Lewis this morning: “There are folks on the other side who want to steal the election before it even takes place.”