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Donna Brazile: John Lewis' enduring legacy – standing up and crossing and building bridges


On Aug. 24, 2013, at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., beseeched a crowd of thousands upon thousands of Black and White Americans:

“I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, Ala., for the right to vote. I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us. You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You got to stand up. Speak up. Speak out, and get in the way. Make some noise! The vote is precious, it is almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society. And we got to use it!”

John Lewis, a civil rights icon who also spoke at the original March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol this week. His legacy of standing up, of crossing and building bridges, will remain with us forever.

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From Selma to Montgomery to Atlanta to Washington, D.C., from a bloody bridge to the halls of power, Lewis stood up for the right to vote, for democracy, for racial equality, for truth and justice, and for kindness and reconciliation.

Lewis’s fight began as that of an ordinary citizen who petitioned his government to have a say in the laws being written and executed. His peaceful fight for voting rights for Blacks began a long career of standing up for justice for all Americans. We must all work together to carry on the legacy of John Lewis.

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We must protect and honor the legacy of John Lewis by insisting that we have a free, fair and safe election in 2020. We must educate ourselves and others about the many safe and secure voting options in our country, including vote-by-mail, non-excuse absentee voting, early-voting and in-person voting.

Now let me be very clear: Honoring John Lewis’ legacy will not be easy. Fifty-five years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enormous hurdles still remain to guaranteeing the right to vote to every eligible American citizen. Barriers to make it more difficult to register must be abolished. Purging citizens who fail to vote in elections must end. Long lines in certain neighborhoods must be addressed by local officials. There’s simply no place in our democracy to erect barriers to voting.

Voting should be easy; the right to vote is core to preserving our democracy. But it wasn’t easy on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, when Lewis crossed that bridge in Selma for the right to vote.

John Lewis believed in his soul and to the end that democracy was the joining together of all voices, Black and White, rich and poor, young and old. We can only shine as a country of the people when all of the people have a voice. 

Fifty years after Lewis first marched on Washington, he saw the Supreme Court strike down the most important provision of the Voting Rights Act. Following the Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, 23 states enacted voter suppression laws, ordered voter purges, stiffened voter ID requirements, closed polls in minority areas and engaged in voter intimidation. And four court decisions this year alone – in cases originating from Alabama, Florida, Texas and Wisconsin – have made it harder for Americans to vote, even in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Just recently, in Barr v. Lee, the Supreme Court upheld a law barring American citizens with felony convictions from voting unless court fines and fees are paid in full. In her dissent, Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor said the ruling showed a decision intent on “condoning disenfranchisement.”

John Lewis believed in his soul and to the end that democracy was the joining together of all voices, Black and White, rich and poor, young and old. We can only shine as a country of the people when all of the people have a voice.

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But there is hope. John Lewis urged us to stand up, speak out and make some noise to demand justice for all. Maybe, just maybe, at this moment, because of his legacy, we will be able to pause the partisanship in our country, and instead look to our better angels and come together to protect the right to vote in Lewis’ name.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who knew Lewis as members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said after he passed, “…please remember that John was, first and foremost, a leader of nonviolent resistance and love, that even when he came to Congress and fought the Republicans, he was always able to walk to the other side. At times like this, when there is such polarization in the Congress, the memory of John Lewis is perhaps more important than ever.”

So here is what we must all – Republicans, Independents, and Democrats – do to embody Lewis’ spirit, to take up his mantle, and to carry on his legacy: we must work to guarantee the right to vote to every eligible American in a free, fair and safe election in November:

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Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., a close friend and colleague of John Lewis, spoke so powerfully about honoring John’s legacy: “And I really think that we would honor him by creating a new Voting Rights Act to replace the 1965 act that was gutted by the Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder seven years ago. So when I get back, I’m going to ask the leadership of the House to consider reintroducing that bill that passed. Name it the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020, and let’s send it over to the Senate. And then, Mitch McConnell and the president can demonstrate their real respect for the life and legacy of John Lewis by passing that bill in the Senate, and the president signing it, and let’s have our election this year in honor of John Robert Lewis.”

May this be John Lewis’ enduring legacy – securing the right of all eligible Americans to vote in free, fair and safe elections – in 2020 and forever after. May we cross this next bridge to protect our great American democracy in his name. And while we are at it, let’s rename that bridge in Selma, the John Robert Lewis Bridge as a symbol of how far we have come and how many more bridges we must cross for justice.

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