By: Andrew Martinez
Last week marked the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act – landmark legislation that finally prohibited racially discriminatory voting laws. By the next election, Black voter registration had increased by almost 70 percent. The success of the Voting Rights Act led to its repeated reauthorization by large bipartisan majorities for five decades, but the latest renewal has languished in the Senate since 2019.
Representative John Lewis did not live to see the renewal of the legislation he risked his life to fight for. On Sunday July 26th, the esteemed civil rights champion crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama one final time. John Lewis first crossed the bridge on March 7th, 1965 – a day that would later be remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” He led a coalition of nonviolent protesters who marched to call attention to the systemic, segregationist policies that hindered Black voters from participating in elections. Alabama State Troopers responded by violently tear-gassing and beating the protestors. John Lewis escaped the ordeal with a fractured skull; he bore a scar from the attack for the rest of his life.
The entirety of his life, John Lewis paved the way for activists, politicians, and people fighting for justice. In 2013, Representative Lewis (who was 73 years old at the time) was arrested at an immigration rally in Washington. He led a sit-in on the floor of the House following the 2016 Pulse massacre, calling for immediate action on gun control. In the last days of his life, he proudly stood behind the activists and protestors who fought in the name of George Floyd. He remained committed to civil disobedience in the name of justice until his death.
Yet even as John Lewis once again crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, his life and legacy are again under assault. The violence endured by John Lewis and his fellow protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge is eerily similar to the violence faced by millions of other Black people in the United States today as they stand against racist institutions across the country. In 1965, John Lewis was fighting to ensure that the Black voter would no longer be disenfranchised; today, Texas continues to close polling sites that primarily serve Black and Latinx voters and refuses to expand vote-by-mail to accommodate younger voters during a pandemic. Today, what started in Alabama 55 years ago has spread to the Manhattan Bridge in New York City, to the Clark Memorial Bridge in Louisville, to the I-35 in Austin, and all around the world. Millions of people are marching and protesting to make a statement, one that says we will no longer accept injustice.
John Lewis’ trauma on that bridge is one that is shared by far too many other people, and just like each of them, John Lewis’ legacy will live beyond that trauma. As Representative Lewis wrote just before his death: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build…a nation and world society at peace with itself.” The “John Lewis” of tomorrow is the college student today creating a mutual aid fund to help those ravaged by COVID-19 and a hurricane in South Texas; the undocumented student reclaiming their status in America to help other undocumented students; the young activists mobilizing their peers by connecting the fight for racial justice to the struggle against gun violence. Supporting and honoring John Lewis in 2020 means supporting Black lives in your part of America. It means contacting your representatives to urge them to support the recently-proposed “John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act” to protect the ballot for all voters. It means taking a radical stance and standing up for those around you who need your support. As long as we live by his last message to be “ordinary people with extraordinary vision [who] can redeem the soul of America by getting in…good trouble, necessary trouble,” John Lewis will continue to be here with us.