Rep. John Lewis

  • August 16, 2013

    U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) during this year’s ACS National Convention spoke a bit about his upbringing in a brutally racist society in rural Alabama. It was as Lewis recounted a time when he found inspiration in the words he heard over the radio from Martin Luther King Jr. and about the actions of Rosa Parks.

    “The action of Rosa Parks, the leadership and words of Dr. King inspired me to get in the way, to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble,” he said at the ACS Convention.

    Lewis, in a New York Times feature, said that 50 years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Lewis spoke, the nation is still haunted by “our dark past.” This summer alone has provided too many examples of a nation resistant or fatally indifferent to the lives and rights of minorities. Indeed great economic inequalities and blatant inequalities in the criminal justice system are festering, not receding. These inequalities are decimating minority communities from coast to coast.

    At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago, Lewis in front of the Lincoln Memorial provided a rousing call for equal opportunity, equality under the law. Today he is still pursuing the cause. At the ACS Convention Lewis presciently anticipated a devastating opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that gutted the landmark Voting Rights Act. Lewis said, “I have a strange feeling in America, at this point in history, we’re just a little too quiet. We’ve come to a point where we almost want to resign, and say this is just the way it is. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are still too many people in our society who have been left out and left behind.”

    Starting next week and running through Aug. 28 an array of groups, such as the Leadership Conference on Civil & human Rights, The Urban League, NAACP, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, SEIU, MALDEF, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and many others will host events daily commemorating the historic March and talking about the challenges and obstacles to genuine equality and economic justice that remain. A schedule of those events is available at the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s website.

    As Lewis said at the ACS Convention the nation has made strides, but much work remains to be done. Lewis urged the gathering, “Don’t give up, don’t give in, our struggle is one that does not last one day or one week, or one year. It is a struggle of a life time, or many life times. We must do what we can, as Dr. King said, to create the beloved community.” Video of Lewis’s speech is here.

  • June 14, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Supreme Court's right-wing justices have another opportunity to greatly hobble the Voting Rights Act by finding its primary enforcement provision, Section 5, unconstitutional. And the high court is likely to issue its opinion any day now. But U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) at the 2013 ACS National Convention urged progressives to be ready to fight back, to not give up on equality.

    Lewis, a civil rights hero, noted his upbringing in rural Alabama, fifty miles from Montgomery, during an era of Jim Crow, and his inspirations for fighting entrenched racism in an effort to create a more thoughtful and honest country. One where the Constitution's promises of equal protection and due process under the law are met.

    “When I was growing up, I saw those signs that said 'white men, colored men,' and 'white women, colored women.' I would ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great grandparents, why? And they would say, 'That's just the way it is. Don't get in the way, don't get in trouble.' But I heard of Rosa Parks, heard the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. The action of Rosa Parks, the leadership and words of Dr. King inspired me to get in the way, to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. And I think it's time for all of us once again to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.

    “I have a strange feeling in America, at this point in history, we're just a little too quiet,” he continued. “We've come to a point where we almost want to resign, and say this is just the way it is. But it doesn't have to be this way. There are still too many people in our society who have been left out and left behind.”

    Lewis focused on how one might react to the outcome of the Supreme Court's consideration of Shelby County v. Holder, the case challenging the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act's Section 5 as a heavy-handed federal government intrusion on state sovereignty. Section 5 covers states and towns, mostly in the South, with long histories of keeping minorities away from the polls. The provision provides that those states must obtain preclearance from a federal court in Washington or the DOJ before making changes to their voting laws, including redistricting.

    Even if the high court provides some gloomy news by striking Section 5 or weakening it, Rep. Lewis said there was no need to despair. Instead, liberals and progressives should be prepared to cause a bit of trouble, good trouble, as Rep. Lewis said.

    “We've come to far, we've made too much progress to go back,” Lewis said. “We must move forward. We got the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965. I've always taken the position that the vote is precious. It is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it.”

    If the high court's right-wing justices successfully gut the Voting Rights Act, Lewis said we must be prepared to “fight the good fight, and never, ever give up.”

    “We must get in the way, we must get in trouble, good trouble; use the law. Use the Constitution, to bring about a non-violent revolution right here in our country. Don't give up, don't give in, our struggle is one that does not last one day or one week, or one year. It is a struggle of a life time, or many life times. We must do what we can, as Dr. King said, to create the beloved community.”

    Getting into trouble, standing in the way of right-wingers beholden to corporate America, and striving to create a smarter country. That sounds as challenging as it is inspiring.

    See Lewis' speech below or click here.

  • February 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    One of the themes running through our blog symposium on the constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act’s integral enforcement provision, Section 5, centers on the fallacious claim that racial discrimination in voting has largely been eradicated so it’s time to significantly scale back one of the nation’s greatest civil rights laws.

    For example, West Virginia University College of Law Professor Atiba Ellis writes that it’s an “appealing” but false premise that racial discrimination is a “relic. Or as New York Law School Professor Deborah Archer notes in her post, the Voting Rights Act has helped stop very recent attempts in the states and towns covered by Section 5, mostly in the South, to implement schemes to suppress the minority vote. Archer concluded by citing Civil Rights hero U.S. Congressman John Lewis who has warned that history teaches us that “popular rights and democratic rights can be reversed ….”

    Rep. Lewis (D-Ga.) in a Feb. 24 column for The Washington Post provides some context of his involvement in “Bloody Sunday,” where he and many other peaceful protesters were brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers. The marchers from Selma to Montgomery, Lewis noted, were taking action to highlight the need for voting rights protections in the state. The brutish actions of Alabama officers against the protesters certainly helped grab the nation’s attention and not long thereafter President Lyndon Johnson pushed for a voting rights measure, which would eventually become law.

    Lewis (pictured) says it is fantastical to believe that all is well in the jurisdictions covered by Section 5. (Those jurisdictions must get “preclearance” from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. for any changes to their voting laws and procedures. See the ACS Voting Rights Resource Page, for more information about the law and the case challenging it, Shelby County v. Holder.)

  • February 25, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Deborah N. Archer, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Law, New York Law School. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on Shelby County v. Holder.

    No law has been more critical in advancing voting rights for all Americans than the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When Congress first enacted the Voting Rights Act, it concluded that case-by-case litigation had been wholly ineffective in guaranteeing African-Americans the right to vote and that nothing short of a prophylactic remedial scheme would succeed in eradicating the “insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country.” (South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 309 (1966).) The heart of the Voting Rights Act – the strong medicine that has done so much to protect the voting rights acts of people of color – is Section 5, which prohibits covered jurisdictions from implementing new voting standards, practices or procedures unless the proposed change has been “pre-cleared” by the Department of Justice or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (42 U.S.C. §1973(c)(a)) The law places the burden on those covered jurisdictions to prove that any proposed changes will not limit minority voting rights.

    From the moment Section 5 was first enacted, jurisdictions that fell within its purview depicted the legislation as an illegitimate intrusion by an all-powerful federal government on state and local sovereignty. In Shelby County v. Holder, Shelby County insists that the Act’s pre-clearance provisions are no longer neededbecause the Act has succeeded in doing so much good, and that covered jurisdictions now should be relieved from the “burdens” of pre-clearance. Never mind that as recently as 2008 Shelby County itself was found to have engaged in racially discriminatory conduct. The truth is that across the country, states, cities and counties continue to enact practices and procedures that suppress, dilute, and infringe upon minorities’ constitutional right to vote. The harms that Section 5 was designed to counter remain, making the law as critical as it has ever been.

     

  • January 23, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Lawmakers in Congress are not giving up on an effort to counter some of the state laws that have made it increasingly difficult to vote and that helped create long lines and waiting times for voters during November’s general elections.

    Earlier today, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and other House members, reintroduced the Voter Empowerment Act, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced a companion version in the Senate.

    Over the past couple of years, state Republican lawmakers have created, with varying degrees of success, hurdles to voting. Those obstacles, such as limiting early voting, creating onerous voter ID requirements, and making it more difficult to conduct voter registration drives, were targeted largely at urban voters, minorities, college students and the elderly. (Victoria Bassetti, author of Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters wrote last fall about the cumbersome voting process in America, saying it mystified other countries. “In the United States, we put the burden on the voter. And in doing so, we keep company with nations such as the Bahamas, Belize and Burundi,” she wrote for The Washington Post.

    During the lame-duck session of Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing to examine some of measures hampering voters, and several of those measures were produced by states, such as Texas, South Carolina, and parts of Florida that are covered by the Voting Rights Act. Specifically Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires covered jurisdictions – those with the worst histories and patterns of racial discrimination in voting – to obtain preclearance for any changes to their voting procedures from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. Several of the witnesses argued that beyond new federal efforts to modernize voting nationwide, Section 5 was still essential to ensure that newly created voting procedures do not discriminate against minority voters. (The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear oral arguments in a case from Shelby County, Ala., challenging the constitutionality of Section 5.)