Rep. John Lewis and several of his Democratic colleagues broke down in tears during a closed-door meeting Tuesday after a historian described the congressman’s reaction when he saw his great-great-grandfather’s voter registration card for the first time.
The House Democratic caucus invited Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr., who heads the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, to preview a new film on reconstruction. Gates spoke about Lewis’s appearance on his PBS show, “Finding Your Roots,” researching the Georgia lawmaker’s family tree and presenting him with his ancestor’s voter card from 1867.
During reconstruction, African Americans were briefly allowed the benefits of full citizenship, including voting and holding seats in Congress.
Lewis (Ga.), who fought for civil rights in the 1960s by organizing protests to end racial segregation, broke down crying in the caucus. His tears made others cry, according to several lawmakers in the room.
“That was the last member of John Lewis’s family to vote until the work that he did crossing that Edmund Pettus Bridge [in Selma, Ala.,] and all the work he did on voting rights,” said Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), referring to the infamous “Bloody Sunday” civil rights protest in which marchers — including then-organizer Lewis — were beaten by police. Clark described the emotional scene in the caucus at Democrats’ weekly news conference after the meeting.
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) stood up and showed the room a scarf she wears almost every day: a lightweight piece of fabric imprinted with a blown-up picture of her own great-grandfather’s voting card. She had it created when she became the first black woman to be elected to Congress from Delaware.
When he introduced Gates, caucus chairman Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said, he told the room that 400 years ago this month, “in June of 1619, the first slave ship left the west coast of Africa and arrived in Virginia.”
Jeffries said: “It was an opportunity for us to reflect on why we do what we do as Democrats in fighting for the people . . . on our democracy reform legislation and the effort to make sure that every single American — regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of Zip code, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, regardless of religion — has an opportunity to participate in our democracy.”
House Democrats’ first major bill this session reaffirmed voting rights, which the party worries are being undermined by Republicans across the nation. The bill has stalled in the GOP-led Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has refused to bring it up for a vote. House leaders, however, are discussing breaking up the legislation to revote on various parts of the bill to make a political statement.
Separately, the House Oversight Committee has been investigating voter rights issues in various states, a key priority for Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Gates told lawmakers it was a worthy cause, Clark said.
“He emphasized that . . . there’s no greater threat to our democracy than voter suppression,” Clark said. “He sees a lot of parallels between the Reconstruction aftermath and the current period we’re in.”