Comment: John Lewis’ conscience should weigh on Congress

Rep. Lewis fought for decades to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. Congress should finish his work.

By Joe Davidson / The Washington Post

As mourners honor the courage that earned Rep. John Lewis his reputation as the conscience of Congress, there is another characteristic that stands out for those who knew him from his days as a young civil rights activist.


Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, was among the most persistent and unwavering voices in the fight for African American voting rights.

“It’s still a source of pain that the Voting Rights Act has not been more actively enforced,” Lewis told me in 1975, 10 years after passage of the law.

Fifty-five years after passage, Lewis was still feeling that pain; during a period when President Donald Trump castigates voting by mail and Republican officials use black voter suppression as an electoral tactic.

“It is heartbreaking to witness this [Justice] Department’s touting of minimal, sub-standard actions as it seemingly deserts its mission to uphold voting rights laws,” he complained in a letter to Attorney General William Barr, just three weeks before Lewis died on July 17, at age 80, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“A rampant war is being waged against minorities’ voting rights … but the Department of Justice is failing to show up for duty,” Lewis added. “It is a shame and a disgrace.”

Justice and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Lewis laid in state at the U.S. Capitol on Monday and Tuesday. His funeral will be Thursday in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.

Lewis was a constant in the tough, unending battle to make America the democracy it struggles to be. That battle includes legislative efforts to restore the power of the Voting Rights Act that was eviscerated by a 2013 Supreme Court decision.

That decision took away a crucial tool available 45 years ago, when Lewis ran the Voter Education Project in Atlanta. That’s when I interviewed him for a three-part series in the now-defunct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on the status of voting rights a decade into the law. (Thank you to the Library of Congress for finding the clips.)

Lewis was organizing black voter registration efforts across the South. Fear and hesitancy remained in black communities that faced lynchings, bombings and terror from racists intent on maintaining a power structure based on white supremacy.

During a 1975 voter registration rally in Iberville Parish, La., Lewis recalled a 31-year-old black woman telling him, “I cannot go out and register, I cannot go out and vote, because they kill all our leaders.”

Yet success stories were growing.

One was in Bolton, Miss., a tiny town where Bennie G. Thompson took office as mayor in 1973.

“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Voting Rights Act,” he said when I interviewed him there two years later.

Now, Thompson represents that congressional district in the House, where he chairs the Homeland Security Committee. He recalls using the Voting Rights Act in successful challenges to Mississippi officials who tried to block his election as city alderman, and then mayor.

“The Voting Rights Act took away many of the barriers to African Americans registering to vote,” Thompson said Thursday. Thinking of Lewis’s work, Thompson described himself as “a real beneficiary of his lifetime of advocacy.”

That advocacy continued until Lewis’ dying day.

Lewis was an adamant supporter of legislation to fix the Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court decision. That decision “destroyed what I considered to be the heart and soul of the Voting Rights Act: the preclearance formula,” he wrote to Barr.

That formula required certain states and jurisdictions to secure Justice Department approval before making changes that affect voting. The Voting Rights Advancement Act, which the House approved in December, would rectify the court’s action if the legislation, due to be named after Lewis, becomes law. So far, the Republican-controlled Senate has not voted on the bill.

Urging approval of the legislation, Lewis told a news conference last year that the original law was gutted because “there are forces in this country that want to keep American citizens from having a rightful say in the future of our nation. … I am deeply and very concerned about the future of our democracy. It seems like the lights are about to go out.”

For civil rights activists, the Trump administration has been a depressing time, though not one of inaction.

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, remembers marching with thousands in March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. That’s where police beat Lewis to the ground in 1965, an event that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Lewis has regularly attended that annual march, but this year his participation was a question because of his illness. Then, he “almost magically appeared in the middle of the bridge,” Gupta said. “He stirred us into action.”

What disturbs her is “for Senate Republicans to engage in performative mourning of Mr. Lewis while obstructing everything that he stood for. I think it is really deplorable.”

His death has made his supporters even more focused on getting the latest voting rights legislation passed.

“We’re going to give it all we got. John Lewis wouldn’t want us to do it any other way,” said Thompson, who met Lewis in the 1960s when both were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “I feel obligated to give it all the gusto I have.”

Columnist Joe Davidson covers federal government issues in the Federal Insider, formerly the Federal Diary. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with the Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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