John Lewis's Long Fight for Voting Rights

      John Lewis, age 23, Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, speaks at the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

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.

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.

Tags: civil rights, john lewis, racial justice, supreme court, voting rights, voting rights act

    • Ari Berman
    • Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and a fellow at The Nation Institute. He has written extensively about American politics, foreign policy, and the intersection of money and politics. His stories have also appeared in The New York TimesRolling StoneE...

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