Civil Rights Hero Says it's No Time to Give up on Equality

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.