You may have known his face. You many have known his title. But do you know his legacy?
In the John Lewis: Good Trouble documentary, Congressman Lewis recognized that as a nation we are not quite there yet and we have “miles to go.” What does it mean for a man who was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, experienced segregation, unlawful arrests, boycotts, Bloody Sunday, and countless other injustices; but saw the election of the first Black President of the United States still note that despite this progress, we (as a nation) are still not done? It profoundly and unfortunately means that we have unfinished business.
Have you seen the 1965 footage of Bloody Sunday where John Lewis and protestors were peacefully marching for their right to vote in this country? Now compare them to the 2020 videos you have seen where peaceful protestors were tear gassed, hit with rubber bullets, police cars running into them, and beaten. Here we are 55 years later and it seems as if the only thing that has changed from then to now is the quality of these videos. This is why we have unfinished business.
Let’s take the Voter Rights Act signed in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson where he stated, “it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” But we have not overcome when that “crippling legacy” sits in the Oval Office. That “crippling legacy” continues to divide our nation and is furthermore enforced by the inaction of the Senate majority, by the lack of recognition of racial tensions and injustices by the President of the United States, and the recent rulings of the Supreme Court. This is why we have unfinished business.
Congressman John Lewis once said, “The vote is the most powerful, non-violent tool we have in a democratic society.” So what happens when they don’t allow you to use that tool? In 2013, the Supreme Court voted to strike down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This decision permitted many Republican-controlled states to enact voter ID laws, roll back early voting and destroy voter registration lists. In 2019, a Supreme Court ruling continued the practice of partisan gerrymandering which permits the party controlling a state legislature to draw voting maps to help elect that dominating party’s candidates. This summer, the Supreme Court has ruled to not allow voters in Texas to submit their ballots by mail given the current pandemic, prohibited voters in some Alabama counties to use absentee ballots in a recent primary runoff election due to the pandemic, and as of last week, allowed the state of Florida to bar people with felony convictions from voting unless they have paid all court fines and fees.
In 2019, the House of Representatives proposed a bill that would amend the Voter Rights Act of 1965 to impose new obligations on states and local jurisdictions. It would provide for automatic voter regulations, expanding early voting, stopping voter purges, creating voting rights for felons, and implementing federal oversight of elections where there is a history of discrimination. We have seen these injustices recently play out in Florida, Georgia and Kentucky. These rulings and inactions are a stark contrast to the work of John Lewis as the 1965 Voter Rights Act was written with his bloodshed and countless others. To date and at the time of his death, this bill has been sitting in the Senate for over 200 days and counting. This is why we have unfinished business.
Congressman John Lewis was an organizer and speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and served over three decades in Congress. He was a Freedom Rider, a father, and a husband. He is a legacy. He selflessly sacrificed his life as he was beaten and bludgeoned in the streets all for the fight for justice, equality, voting rights and so much more. When you read about the historic times surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis personified that movement.
His voice, his work, and his fight were important and necessary in 1963 and they still are in 2020. Despite all that John Lewis endured, he was never bitter although he had every right to be. He was tenacious. He did not look back and was always moving forward. He never stopped fighting for people, no matter their race, creed, or color. John Lewis stated, “When you lose your sense of fear, you are free.” We need to adopt this fearless mentality, stand on his legacy, and continue his unfinished business.
In the words of Congressman John Lewis, “Let’s be fired up! Speak up and speak out! Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Rest in Peace and Power Congressman Lewis.