Let Us Honor the Life of American Hero John Lewis, By Restoring Voting Rights
By Frankie Miranda, President, Hispanic Federation
Long before many of my generation were born, on March 7, 1965, a young John Lewis courageously shed blood for his beliefs that would never waiver; that our democracy would survive assaults against fundamental human and civil rights.
On that Sunday 55 years ago, with his shoulders bearing the weight of a backpack, the future congressman stuffed his hands in his tan overcoat and led 600 peaceful demonstrators across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL. The march for voting rights was supposed to end three days later and 54 miles away in Montgomery, the state Capitol. But trouble was in the air. A month earlier, peaceful demonstrators had been violently attacked by white segregationists, prompting Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to avoid the Selma to Montgomery march.
Nearing the end of the Pettus Bridge, the marchers were blocked by Alabama state and local police armed with batons. Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and his partner, Rev. Hosea Williams, were determined to continue walking. As they moved forward, police started beating the demonstrators. Television cameras captured Lewis being viciously attacked and suffering a fractured skull while other marchers, attempting to kneel in prayer, were also beaten in clouds of teargas. Within months, the 1965 Voting Rights Act became law. “Bloody Sunday,” as that day became known, made 25-year-old Lewis an iconic figure of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The legacy Congressman John Lewis leaves behind as we mourn his death at the age of 80, however, is greater than that single day of courageous leadership. We honor this American hero for a body of political work and moral leadership that taught all of us — — regardless of the color of our skin, immigration status, sexual identity or religion — to keep getting up when we’re knocked down, keep standing up for what is right, and never giving up.
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something,” he would often say.
Inspired by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Lewis was on the frontlines of the civil rights movement. He was arrested for peacefully sitting at a lunch counter in Nashville, TN. He was one of the 13-member group of Freedom Riders, blacks and whites, who boarded a Greyhound Bus in Washington, D.C. in 1961 and headed south to test the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion that segregation of interstate transportation facilities, like bus terminals, was unconstitutional. Lewis was beaten and arrested along the way. By 1963, as a founding member of the SNCC, the youth group, Lewis helped organize the March on Washington, where Dr. King famously presented his “I have a dream” speech. Lewis, the youngest speaker at the event, also drew notice.
After “Bloody Sunday” and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Lewis focused on voter registration work until turning to elective office, becoming a member of the Atlanta City Council before his election to Congress in 1986. Whenever Lewis rose to speak in the House chamber, members listened intently to this leader who had become the “conscience” of the House.
He stood up for the rights of everyone who was discriminated against or disenfranchised, and was a strong leader for immigrants’ rights. After 911 re-charged the anti-immigrant movement, Lewis led the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides of 2003 across the U.S., ending in Queens, NY at a rally that drew more than 100,000 supporters.
“Martin Luther King would be very proud. We are white, Black, Hispanic, Native American — we are one family, in one house, and we are not going to let anybody turn us around,” he told the demonstrators. A decade later, Lewis joined young activists in being arrested a peaceful demonstration for commonsense immigration reform.
Lewis’ lifelong mission to maintain voting rights and register voters suffered a major setback in 2013 when the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. Congressional conservatives also have blocked efforts to restore the protections for communities of color that have been historically disenfranchised from voting.
But in March, 2019, the House passed the “For The People Act,” which would expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants. As the House prepared to vote, Lewis rose to speak.
“Many people marched and protested for the right to vote. Some gave a little blood. Others gave their very lives,” Lewis began. “It makes me sad. It makes me feel like crying when people are denied the right to vote. We all know that this is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. It is an American one….This vote is an opportunity to be on the right side of history. It is a chance to cast a vote by the people, of the people, and for the people. So I ask you: If not us, then who? If not now, then when? The time has arrived to tear down the barriers to the ballot box. Today, we are able to do our part in this long fight for the very soul of our nation. Let’s save our nation and redeem the soul of America.”
Let us heed his call. Let us stand together as we call on the Senate to complete action on the voting rights bill. And in November, let answer the late congressman’s plea to “go out and vote like you never voted before.”
For voter registration assistance, or for information about voting, please call Hispanic Federation’s Information Hotline: 1–844–432–9832.