The incumbent senator, Democrat Wyche Fowler Jr., faced a Republican challenger, Paul Coverdell, and now the state’s leading Democratic lights were gathering in an Atlanta hotel to follow the close-run results.
Fowler was upstairs, huddled with advisers. It was still early, and one barometer of power on such a night is not ubiquity but scarcity. In traditional terms, the more important a figure is when the votes are being counted, the less one sees of him or her. The politically astute maintain their mystique by remaining out of sight, presumably consumed with opaque but essential tasks, like an ancient priest communing with the gods in an inner sanctum while the common folk stand outside, waiting.
Congressman John Lewis, however, stood among the people. He was with his wife, Lillian Miles Lewis, greeting his fellow Georgia Democrats and keeping an eye on the televised returns. He didn’t need to be seen as powerful. His status was secure, his standing unassailable.
That evening, I was there as a reporter for the Chattanooga Times, my hometown newspaper. During a brief exchange, I asked Lewis, who had just won his fourth term as a member of Congress from Atlanta, what it was like to have covered so much ground — from being beaten for asking for the right to vote to being hailed as a hero of human rights.
“We have come so far,” he answered in his deep, slow, preacherly voice. “All of us, all of us in the South, in America. So far. And we have so far to go. The way of the civil rights movement was the way of love, of respect, of the dignity of every person. Not just Black, not just White, not just male, not just female, but every person.”
But the movement, I suggested, was a moment of clarity, of intensity, of drama. How do you keep that up when there aren’t Bull Connors around, no WHITE ONLY signs?
With a steady gaze, Lewis, who died last month, replied, “We marched for what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.” — Lewis said the full name, almost as an incantation — “called ‘the Beloved Community.’ He wanted to make love real, to give the Gospel some legs — and he taught us that we have to use not only voices, but there comes a time when you have to use your feet. And that march, the march for love, that march doesn’t end.”
And it hasn’t ended yet. Voting rights are under renewed assault from an incumbent president who has admitted he wants to make it more, not less, difficult for Americans to exercise their most fundamental right.
“Universal mail-in ballots,” President Trump has said. “They want $25 billion, billion, for the Post Office. Now they need that money in order to make the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots.” Trump said such voting — which is standard — is “fraudulent,” and added: “But if they don’t get those two items that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because you they’re not equipped to have it.”
The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020, meanwhile, languishes in Congress. Among other things, the bill would restore the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires states and localities with demonstrable records of discrimination to seek “preclearance” from the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in Washington before any changes in election laws or policies.
The House has passed the bill, but — sadly and predictably — Mitch McConnell’s Senate has refused to act.
These issues of access to the ballot might lack the drama of the Edmund Pettus Bridge or of Freedom Summer, but they are sequential and essential chapters in the still-unfolding story of civil rights and American democracy.
“The movement was real,” Lewis said back in 1992. “The movement was clear. There was nothing ambiguous about what we wanted, nothing uncertain about WHITE ONLY and COLORED ONLY signs. A sign — a society — saying, ‘You have to go here, you can’t go there.’ Our job was to ‘Make it plain,’ which was the advice Daddy King used to give Dr. King when Dr. King was preaching. Daddy King believed you had to make the Gospel totally clear, and he thought his son sometimes took things too high, too abstract, talking about theology and quoting these wonderful thinkers. ‘Make it plain, son,’ Daddy King would say. And that is what we tried to do in the movement: Make it plain.”
The best way to make it plain now — the best way to honor John Lewis — is to defend the very thing he risked his life for: the vote.