But nowhere was his dedication clearer than in his determination to secure the still-unmet promise of our nation: the right to vote.
That promise is what led him to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as the youngest speaker to address the March on Washington. It is the hope that he carried across a bridge in Selma, Ala., named for a Confederate general who was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. It is the pledge that he brought with him to the Capitol, where he stood alongside President Lyndon B. Johnson at the signing of a Voting Rights Act that he helped usher into law. It is the commitment that animated him every day of his service as a representative for the oppressed in this nation and as a guiding light for his country, including more than three decades of service as a member of Congress.
That promise was his life’s work. But even after his death, it remains tragically unfulfilled.
In recent years, America has taken substantial steps backward in the fight for electoral equality, aided by a trio of wrongly decided Supreme Court cases: In 2010, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened a pipeline for dark money to pour into our democratic system, offering speech for sale to those who could afford it. In 2019, Rucho v. Common Cause abdicated the responsibility of federal courts to take on partisan gerrymandering claims, allowing politicians to protect and preserve their power by choosing their voters. Most egregiously, the high court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act, opening the door to forces of voter suppression and giving anti-voting entities permission to be bold in their obstruction and clear in their intention to restrict the franchise.
Since Shelby, state legislatures and local officials have closed nearly 1,700 polling places across the country. Voters have been unnecessarily and inexcusably stricken from the rolls — with purge rates 40 percent higher in states that were previously covered by the VRA. Over the past decade, 25 states have instituted draconian anti-voting laws that clearly and intentionally have a disproportionate impact on communities of color.
Even in the months before his death, John Lewis refused to stand down. In December 2019, he presided over a vote in the House of Representatives that passed a bill to restore and strengthen the enforcement power of its decades-old counterpart. From updating pre-clearance rules — requiring jurisdictions with patterns of discrimination to submit changes in their voting procedures to the Justice Department for approval in advance of elections — to ensuring transparency in voting procedures; to promoting access for Native American and Alaska Native citizens, the law was designed to effect desperately needed, common-sense protections and reforms for American voters at a time when trust in our institutions has fallen to record lows. Today, the Voting Rights Advancement Act is locked up in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refuses to allow a vote.
In the days since John Lewis’s passing, we’ve heard tributes from many of the same voices who frustrated his most recent efforts to secure voting rights for the Americans for whom they have often been proscribed. On Saturday, McConnell tweeted, “I will never forget joining hands with John as Congress sang We Shall Overcome at a 2008 ceremony honoring his friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” — praising John Lewis’s life while smothering his life’s goal.
Many House Republicans extolled his leadership — Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called John Lewis “a patriot in the truest sense” — even though all but one voted against the new voting rights bill, his most precious, urgent priority. Brian Kemp, who became governor of Rep. Lewis’s own state of Georgia through a campaign that leaned on system manipulation and voter suppression, called him a “Civil Rights hero, freedom fighter, devoted public servant, and beloved Georgian who changed our world in a profound way.”
Enough. This is all little more than performance mourning.
We’ve heard enough platitudes from people who quote Bible verses on Sunday and remain mute about the caging of children on Monday; who wrap themselves in the Constitution while gutting its protections; who praise my friend while dismantling his sacred work. You simply cannot honor the man or his life’s work if you’re an opponent of voting rights for all.
John Lewis righteously fought for fairness. He did so openly, honestly and with the fullness of his being. He “gave a little blood” on a bridge in Selma; he gave his life to his country and to all of us. If the leaders of our nation want to demonstrate their sincerity about honoring his legacy as a man of word and deed, they can pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act that languishes in the Senate, name it for John Lewis and make it the law of the land.
No other tribute is worthy of his life, and no other outcome is adequate for his legacy.