John Lewis would be impatient with all the tributes, especially those coming from politicians who spout empty words while taking actions that attempt to crush the soul and spirit of the racial justice to which Congressman Lewis devoted his passionate life. His death from pancreatic cancer yesterday comes at a moment when the last century’s gains for civil rights all seem in grave danger. While we fervently mourn this great loss, we must also embrace the moment as a true clarion call to take the courageous actions necessary to defeat the forces of private and public racism, official governmental oppression and increasingly overt white supremacy that are trying to undo everything he and others fought so hard to achieve.
We can read about the exceptional life of John Lewis in the many glowing obituaries published about him today, so I will not repeat his bio here. We can read his breakout 1963 Speech at the March on Washington and read about Bloody Sunday and hear his words across the years in so many videos.
But remembering and reading and listening and mouthing words of praise can hardly be enough at a time when our government is engaging in reprehensible authoritarian efforts to crush the Black Lives Matter movement, to criminalize with extraordinarily harsh penalties protests against statues while real bodies are beaten and gassed and harmed, to defend the Confederate Flag as some kind of “free speech” while threatening free expression of protest against racism and white supremacy. Voting rights — the key issue that caused Lewis and other to march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma and suffer grave injuries inflicted by the police who tried to stop them — are already being rolled back especially in the South where racist lawmakers align themselves with the sentiment to “make America great again” as in restoring a time past when Black Americans could not freely exercise their right to vote, or enjoy equal protection of the laws, or live and work free from discrimination and oppression. The erosion of voting rights has been hastened by a 2013 Supreme Court decision (Shelby v. Holder) striking down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the great legacies of John Lewis’s heroism, that required states with histories of suppressing Black voting rights to get prior federal approval before changing voting rules. One of the people tweeting out empty words today is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who, for more than 220 days, has refused to move forward in the Senate with Congressman Lewis’s legislation HR4 to restore the Voting Rights Act protection. Don’t tweet what you don’t mean, Senator McConnell!!
Who can replace John Lewis and the other great civil rights leaders like the Reverend C.T. Vivian who also died yesterday? Seems like the Lord is calling the great ones home as a challenge to the rest of us to get up, shake off our pandemic-imposed fuzziness and get moving on a real agenda for action. Yes, many people this year have already been out on the front lines protesting following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many other Black persons at the hands of police. Many people have joined those protests and marches in reaction to the despicably cruel and inhumane immigration actions of the Trump Administration, and President Trump’s personal embrace of the symbols of racial oppression like the confederate flag and statues. Our own city led the way in making a unique statement of solidarity by painting Black Lives Matter on 16th Street and naming the intersection of 16th and H at Lafayette Square as Black Lives Matter plaza.
But beyond protests and symbols, where is the permanent change? Some of us are of an age and stage well beyond physically marching, but we have voices and influence and we can and should do even more to call out the racism around us, to advocate for legislative and judicial remedies, and to insist on change in leadership when leaders refuse to uphold civil and human rights as the most fundamental standard for a just and free society.
After his brutal beating on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, John Lewis did not stop, he continued to lead and work for structural change, helping to get the Voting Rights Act enacted, and later on, becoming a member of Congress where he was relentless in working for legislation to improve civil and human rights. Even as he grew very ill this year, he continued to walk for freedom, proclaiming the urgent need to work for racial justice. We need to study his example in doing the hard work, the not-so-glamorous work behind the scenes, the organizing and advocacy and legislative vote counting needed to change laws.
We need to call out the official governmental oppression that is trying to quash legitimate protest for civil rights. What is happening in Portland, Oregon is outrageous — federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security driving around in unmarked vehicles snatching protesters from the streets, a naked agenda of intimidation and federal oppression that also violates the rights of the state and city to manage their own affairs. The situation has become so untenable that the State of Oregon has sued the federal government in an effort to get a restraining order against the federal agents. D.C. faced a similar problem with unidentified federal agents interfering with our local management of protesters in May and June. And in Chicago, ICE is trying to recruit civilians to create some kind of shadowy new militia to track and detain immigrants. None of this is what a responsible federal government should be doing, and all of it seems to be tied to the current administration’s agenda to run roughshod over civil and human rights.
We must Get Out The Vote. Ultimately, no matter how loudly we protest or how hard we work to craft beautiful legislation, no change will occur if we do not change the people who are making the decisions.
The best tribute we can pay to John Lewis is to ensure the ultimate enactment of his vision for an equal and just society through electing leaders who will uphold those values.