The World John Lewis Helped CreateBreaking News
tags: Congress, civil rights, African American history, voting rights, John Lewis
John Lewis believed in the American project and wanted to perfect it.
On August 28, 1963, Lewis stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before hundreds of thousands of people, but his mind was on those who could not be there. He thought of the Black people in Danville, Virginia, living under the heavy baton of a police state; of the sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, working for starvation wages; of the three young men facing the death penalty in Georgia for protesting. “We will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace,” Lewis told the crowd. “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in the streets and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.” Lewis was just 23 years old. Shortly after he said those words, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lewis, whose death from pancreatic cancer at age 80 was announced late last night, lived a revolutionary life as an activist, organizer, and representative who became known to many as the “soul” of Congress. “There were moments when we had the votes [to pass legislation] in terms of sheer Democratic majority, but the will was not there to get things done,” Jaime Harrison, who worked with Lewis as the majority floor director in the House, told me. “It was always John Lewis who would step up. And when John Lewis got up to speak, everybody listened.” Harrison is now running to unseat South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham in the Senate, on a platform of registering disenfranchised Black voters across the state.
The “moral clarity” with which Lewis lived his life served as both an inspiration and a model for the generations of leaders who came after him. He showed what patriotism looked like, the Reverend Jesse Jackson told me by phone this afternoon. On March 7, 1965, Lewis led more than 600 protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama. The marchers were bludgeoned and teargassed by police—Lewis's skull was fractured. Americans watched the brutality on national television and saw how Black people were being treated in the quest for civil rights. “Our modern democracy was born in front of that bridge—it should be named after John Lewis instead of Edmund Pettus, by the way,” Jackson said.
Lewis placed the right to vote at the center of his mission—a cause picked up by leaders such as Stacey Abrams, whose election-reform organization, Fair Fight, has advocated, lobbied, and sued for access to the ballot. He lived to see historic voting legislation—the Voting Rights Act of 1965—signed into law. He also lived to see it gutted.
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