By Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan
On Bloody Sunday, March 7th, 1965, 600 African Americans and their allies left Selma, Alabama, marching to Montgomery, demanding voting rights. While crossing Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were attacked by the Alabama State Police using nightsticks, electric cattle prods, dogs and tear gas. Images of the violence spread globally. John Lewis, the 25-year-old chairman of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, leading the march, was hospitalized with a concussion.
His commitment to the principles of justice, equality, and the power of nonviolent protest should serve as a North Star as we navigate these difficult days. John Lewis, civil rights icon and 17-term Congressmember, died July 17th of pancreatic cancer, aged 80.
Eight days after Bloody Sunday, the bravery of the marchers forced President Lyndon Johnson to address a joint session of Congress, imploring passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America,” he said. “It is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice…and we shall overcome.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. joined Lewis in Selma after Bloody Sunday, helping organize two more marches. 25,000 joined the marchers arriving in Montgomery on March 25th. On August 6th, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. It eliminated barriers to voter registration for people of color, especially in Southern states. For close to a century, White Southerners enacted Jim Crow laws, forcing African Americans into an impoverished, segregated state of quasi-slavery.
Among the Jim Crow laws were many that made registering to vote for African Americans nearly impossible. Literacy tests, given only to Blacks, had questions like, “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” In Lowndes County, Alabama, in 1964, African Americans comprised 80% of the population, yet not a single one of them was registered to vote. In Mississippi, African American voter registration was less than 7% in 1964; in 1988 it was 75%.
Close to half a century later, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, voting 5-4 in the Shelby, Alabama v. Holder decision, gutted the Voting Rights Act. Since then, more than 25 Republican-controlled states have passed an array of voter disenfranchisement laws. Ranging from requirements for voter identification, to massive purges of the voter rolls based on flawed data, to shuttering thousands of polling places and limiting early voting and absentee voting, these laws deter millions of people of color from casting their ballots.
Add to these, two new threats to the 2020 election: the coronavirus pandemic and President Donald Trump himself. In-person voting has become a dangerous act, with COVID-19 deaths surging almost everywhere in the U.S., disproportionately affecting communities of color. Voting by mail is the simple solution. Trump has attacked the practice, lying repeatedly that it enables voter fraud. It’s no surprise that Trump refused to pay respect to the revered voting rights activist John Lewis, the first African American lawmaker to lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
Trump accelerates his march toward authoritarianism, deploying federal paramilitary agents to cities across the U.S. Despite the violence and arbitrary arrests Trump is unleashing, the Black Lives Matter movement continues, empowering a new, diverse generation of activists. In his last public appearance, John Lewis, wearing a mask, visited Black Lives Matter Plaza, close to the White House.
After his death, the House of Representatives renamed H.R. 4 the “John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.” It would undo the damage to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 wrought by the Supreme Court in 2013. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, while praising John Lewis before his casket in the Rotunda, refuses to allow the Senate to debate the bill.
John Lewis was the last living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington. Advisors at the time said his draft speech was too radical and would alienate Democrats. John Lewis originally wrote, “We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence…We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.”
On the day of his funeral, the New York Times published an essay John Lewis wrote shortly before his death. “Democracy is not a state. It is an act…Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Thank you for a lifetime of good trouble, necessary trouble.
John Robert Lewis, Rest In Power.