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.

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.

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.

On March 3, Lewis returned to Selma for the forty-eighth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Thirty members of Congress accompanied him — part of a pilgrimage to Alabama that Lewis has led since 2000 — along with Vice President Joseph Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Lewis locked arms with Biden and Luci Baines Johnson, LBJ’s youngest daughter, and once again marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Fifteen thousand people followed, some of whom would continue all the way to Montgomery. "Woke up this morning with my mind/ stayed on freedom," activists sang as they climbed the bridge. At the top, high above the Alabama River, Lewis grabbed a bullhorn and retold the story of Bloody Sunday. "You have to tell the story over and over again to educate people," Lewis told me. "It is my obligation to do what I can to complete what we started many, many years ago," he said in Selma. 

Every return to Selma is meaningful for Lewis, but this trip had special significance. Just four days before, Lewis had sat inside the Supreme Court as the justices heard a challenge to Section 5 of the VRA, which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting, primarily in the South, to clear election-related changes with the federal government. (A decision in that case, Shelby County v. Holder, is expected at the end of June.) Lewis calls Section 5 the "heart and soul" of the law, and was deeply disturbed by the arguments from the Court’s conservative justices. "It appeared to me that several members of the Court didn’t have a sense of the history, what brought us to this point, and not just the legislative history and how it came about," Lewis said afterward in his congressional office, which is decorated with iconic photographs of the civil rights movement. "They seemed to be somewhat indifferent to why people fought so hard and so long to get the act passed in the first place. And they didn’t see the need."

Justice Antonin Scalia said the law represented a "perpetuation of racial entitlement." Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that the federal government is discriminating against states like Alabama more than Alabama is discriminating against its own citizens. Chief Justice John Roberts implied that Massachusetts has a bigger problem with voting discrimination than Mississippi. Clarence Thomas, who as is customary didn’t speak, had already declared Section 5 unconstitutional in a previous decision.

Lewis called Scalia’s statement "shocking and unbelievable" and said he almost cried when he heard it. "So what happened to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments?" he asked, shaking his head. "What happened to the whole struggle to make it possible in the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first, for every person to be able to cast a free and open vote?"

Forty-eight years after Bloody Sunday, Lewis is once again in the fight of his life, with conservative officeholders resurrecting voter suppression methods not seen since the 1960s and Supreme Court justices asserting that the federal efforts to combat historic discrimination in voting — reforms that Lewis nearly died to win — are no longer needed. In January, he filed an amicus brief with the Court opposing the Shelby County challenge. It noted "the high price many paid for the enactment of the Voting Rights Act and the still higher cost we might yet bear if we prematurely discard one of the most vital tools of our democracy."

Lewis grew up a hundred miles southeast of Selma, in the rural Alabama Black Belt near Troy. He was the third of ten kids; his parents farmed cotton, corn and peanuts. Their farmhouse had no electricity, running water or insulation. He was a bookish, devout child who wore ties and preached to his chickens, sneaking away from the fields to attend school. His life changed when, at 15, he heard about the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955 and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. (who quickly became his idol) preaching on the radio.

While at college in Nashville, Lewis played an instrumental role in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides that hastened the demise of Jim Crow. "I was like a soldier in a nonviolent army," he says. He soon became the movement’s field commander, assuming chairmanship of SNCC in 1963. "John was probably the most committed person I’ve ever met," says South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, who met Lewis at a SNCC conference in 1960. A lifelong adherent of peaceful resistance, Lewis saw his mission as "bringing the Gandhian way into the belly of the Black Belt."

Lewis became head of the Voter Education Project in 1970, which took the lead in registering black voters in the South after the VRA’s passage. The VEP registered 2 million voters from 1970 to 1977, including Lewis’s mother and father. The group distributed posters that read: "Hands that pick cotton…can now pick our elected officials." In 1986, Lewis won election to the US House from Atlanta, defeating his close friend Julian Bond. "Vote for the tugboat, not the showboat" was one of his slogans. Lewis became known as "the conscience of Congress," with an unmatched stature on civil rights. "I don’t think I’ve seen anybody in the movement that carries the moral cachet that John Lewis has," says Clyburn.

Lewis initially endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008, based on their close friendship, but viewed Obama’s election as a culmination of what he and so many others had put their lives on the line for. "Because of what you did, Barack Obama is the president of the United States," Lewis said in Selma following Obama’s 2008 victory, on the forty-fourth anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

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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