OPINION: John Lewis put life on line for the right to vote; now it’s our turn

Amanda Hiley and her husband Todd Heifner from Birmingham, Ala., placed flowers and a candle at the John Lewis Mural at Jesse Hill Jr. Drive and Auburn Avenue in Atlanta on Monday, July 20, 2020. She met John Lewis at an Equal Justice Initiative gathering and felt compelled to come to Atlanta and leave flowers. The U.S. House of Representatives convened Monday morning, July 20, 2020, for the first time in more than three decades without John Lewis serving as the conscience of Congress. Lewis, 80, died late Friday, July 17, 2020, after a battle with pancreatic cancer, only hours after another civil rights legend, C.T. Vivian, died at age 95. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

My first personal encounter with Congressman John Lewis happened in 2012 in his Atlanta office.

I hadn’t been there long before I noticed a photograph of President John F. Kennedy sailing on his beloved Victura on the wall and this quote just beneath it: “One man can make a difference and every man should try.”

In 1965, a young John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Lewis talks with the AJC about that historic day 50 years later and how it changed the civil rights movement. (Video by Ryon Horne/AJC)

It was one of many pearls of wisdom scattered about the elder statesman’s 19th-floor office, but it was that single sentiment permeating “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change,” a biographical account of Lewis’ life and the reason for my visit.

I remembered that moment last Sunday while listening to a recorded sermon Lewis preached just four years earlier at Antioch Baptist Church North, where my husband and I have been members since our arrival here in the summer of 2000. The sermon, like the book, was a stirring account of his fight for the right to vote.

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The recording, played during our virtual service, was special for a couple of reasons. One, our late pastor and Lewis’ longtime friend, the Rev. Cameron Madison Alexander, introduced Lewis that morning and so seeing him, hearing his voice again was uplifting. And two, I was reasonably sure that at that very moment, he and Lewis, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who left us just hours before Lewis on July 17, and the Rev. Joseph Lowery were belting out belly laughs, compliments of Pastor Alexander, of course, walking streets of gold, talking about how they got over.

The notion was enough to make me laugh out loud, but there was nothing funny about Lewis’ message that December morning 12 years ago.

He was one of three civil rights icons who’d been invited to Antioch to, well, connect the dots to freedom. C.T. Vivian and Ambassador Andrew Young were the others addressing the congregation that month.

Lewis drew inspiration from the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

He titled his sermon “Finding a Way to Get in the Way,” which could’ve easily been the theme for his life.

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By the time I met him that day in his office, he was 72 and had been getting in the way, getting in good trouble for more than 50 years.

He told me that day that he’d written “Across That Bridge” because it was important for him to let a new generation of young people, indeed some not so young, know that he and other civil rights leaders hadn’t just awakened one day and decided to march.

“We prepared ourselves,” he said.

For him, preparation began on his parents’ farm in rural Alabama, where he and his siblings picked cotton, gathered peanuts and raised chickens and where he dreamed of becoming a preacher.

“It was a different world, a different life,” he told me. “In spite of the difficulties, my family was a very warm and loving family. I had all these first cousins and aunts and uncles. It was the essence of the ‘beloved community.‘ ”

But even as a kid, Lewis said he was keenly aware of the segregation and racial discrimination of the time. When he’d ask his parents why, the answer was always the same: “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”

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The temptation is to detail every personal slight he endured, every humiliating arrest and every beating as he did in his sermon and in “Across That Bridge,” but it’s just too hard, too painful.

John Lewis. C.T. Vivian. Joseph Lowery. They are all gone now and we’re left to somehow finish the work they started, to get in some good trouble.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

In one of his final public acts as a congressman, Lewis announced passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore key protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act against racial discrimination that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.

That was in December. The legislation, held in limbo by the Republican-led Senate, hasn’t moved since. Instead of demanding we number jelly beans in a jar or bubbles in a bar of soap, they’re now purging voters from the registration rolls, moving polling sites to hostile locations or shuttering them altogether to make it harder to vote on Election Day.

Shaking your head? Good. You know how I feel.

Even as they issue statements expressing sadness about Lewis’ passing, these same Republicans are fighting to further dismantle his life’s work to prohibit racial discrimination in voting laws.

And here at home, House Speaker David Ralston has gone on the record saying expanding vote by mail “will be devastating to Republicans.” Yet after the June 9 primary in Georgia, my colleague Mark Niesse reported that Republican and Democratic voters cast absentee ballots at about the same rate, 49% of each party’s overall turnout.

Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, nearly 2.4 million voters — 32% of the state’s eligible voters — participated in Georgia’s combined presidential and general primary last month. Democratic Party voters outnumbered Republican Party voters, 52% to 45%, according to voting data from the secretary of state’s office.

It’s anybody’s guess what will happen in November.

John Lewis knew without a doubt the Voting Rights Advancement Act was vital to safeguarding democracy. That’s why he risked being beaten to death that Sunday 55 years ago on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Hours after Lewis’ death last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that this “nation’s history has only bent towards justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it.”

I hope he meant that because the time has come to put a stop finally to this assault on voting rights.

Bring the Voting Rights Advancement Act to a vote, Senator. And if it isn’t too much to ask, do what you can to put his name on the legislation and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It’s time you bent our history toward justice for all.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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