As the civil rights movement took a historic pivot last week at the hands of the Supreme Court, John Lewis was beset with conflicting emotions.
On Tuesday, Congress’ living connection to the most tumultuous days of the struggle for racial justice watched as the court yanked out a critical piece of the Voting Rights Act, a law he shed blood for 48 years ago.
On Wednesday, the man who was in the minority of his own party as he forcefully denounced the Defense of Marriage Act 17 years ago watched as the court tossed it into history’s dustbin.
The rulings served to fill Lewis with new resolve to continue the fight for civil rights, his life’s work providing him the stature and respect to shape the debates to come.
To start, that means whether he is delivering one of countless commencement speeches, making the cable news rounds or addressing the House Democratic caucus, Lewis relentlessly reminds his audiences of what he fought for and its relevance today.
“I think I have a responsibility and an obligation to continue to remind people how we got where we are,” Lewis, 73, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Lewis was the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and had barely turned 25 when he led a 1965 march protesting the killing of a man who had been campaigning for voting rights. Lewis and other marchers were brutally beaten by police officers in full view of television cameras, a day that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
The violent images shocked the nation. A larger march from Selma to Montgomery was organized, this time drawing people from across the nation. The Voting Rights Act passed just months later. Lewis attended the signing ceremony with President Lyndon B. Johnson. In his Atlanta home, he still has one of the pens used to sign the law.
He has many more stories to share. Last week, he told House Democrats about the 1961 Freedom Rides.
“If the Democratic caucus, black and white and Latino members, had tried to leave in 1961 on a bus seated together, they probably would have been arrested, jailed and beaten along the way,” Lewis said.
Lewis holds no formal leadership position or top committee post, but he is universally revered in the Capitol. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., agree on precious little, but last week Pelosi talked of naming a bill to reinstate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act after Lewis, and Cantor told Yahoo! News that he would solicit Lewis’ thoughts on shaping such a bill.
The Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act — the formula that determines which cities or counties must get federal government approval to make any changes to their voting laws. The court said Congress must create a 21st century model, a monumental challenge, particularly for such a polarized institution.
“It may be a little difficult,” Lewis said. “But it can be done.”
Even for a man so frequently feted, this is an eventful summer for Lewis. He is participating in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in August, when a graphic novel telling his life’s story will debut.
The U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution honoring Lewis on the 50th anniversary of his becoming chairman of SNCC, a move the Senate rarely allows for living people.
Asked whether the Senate could agree unanimously to honor any other member of the “other chamber,” Sen. Johnny Isakson – a Georgia Republican and the resolution’s sponsor – chuckled and said, “No.”
Lewis is one of the Capitol’s outspoken liberals on all matters, but his words are taken most seriously on civil rights.
Last year, U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, an Athens Republican, offered a late-night amendment to a spending bill, intending to strip money from the Justice Department to enforce pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act. Lewis responded with a trip to the House floor to loudly denounce the effort, and Broun sheepishly withdrew the amendment with an apology.
The case for the Voting Rights Act is harder to make these days. Lewis can speak from experience about vivid racial hostility, but today’s barriers to minority power at the ballot box come in arcane redistricting plans, voter identification laws and shifting election dates, according to recent federal enforcement actions. Because of that, the court declared that the 1965 definition of where and how the federal government can intervene is out of date.
Back then, racism “was so overt, so open,” Lewis said. “And now you have to find words and to paint the picture, to tell the story.”
On same-sex marriage, Lewis was an early supporter, putting him at odds with much of the religious African-American community. Lewis voted against DOMA and embraced Massachusetts legalizing gay marriage in 2004.
“I’ve worked too long against discrimination based on race and color not to be against discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Lewis said.
As the Supreme Court placed historical markers for the denouement of the racial civil rights movement and the continued rise of the gay rights movement, Lewis was conflicted. While striking down the Defense of Marriage Act was, in his view, a victory for “equal protection under the law,” in the Voting Rights Act decision, the court declared more racial progress than has actually come to pass.
“African-Americans participated in the political process more than 100 years ago (during Reconstruction) and later they were out of office and we had all these Jim Crow laws and customs and traditions, so we don’t want to fight that fight over,” said one of the fight’s foremost veterans.
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