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.