The Right Way to Honor John Lewis: Restore and Extend the Voting Rights Act

Today’s activists are picking up the baton with the kind of courage, persistence, and belief in disruption Lewis showed. Let’s not settle for a bridge name.

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 14: Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in between television interviews on Feb. 14, 2015. Rep. Lewis was beaten by police on the bridge on "Bloody Sunday" 50 years ago on March 7, 1965, during an attempted march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 14, 2015.

Photo: By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Friday, July 17 carried a double blow. First came notice that civil rights activist Rev. C.T. Vivian had died and then, later that evening, that Rep. John Lewis had also joined the ancestors. The internet was awash in selfies with Lewis and tributes for the good trouble the two had caused.

A chorus began to call for renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where Lewis had been beaten on Bloody Sunday, in 1965, along with other marchers. (Pettus was a Confederate general, a U.S. senator, and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.) But a number of people who had participated in the events of Bloody Sunday or the voting campaigns in Selma were wary. Lynda Lowery, who, like Lewis, had been beaten on the bridge, explained, “I left my blood and tears in the cement of that bridge. So did John. So did a lot of other people … if we’re going to try to fix things that are broken, then fix the things that are broken.”

There were reasons to worry. Seven years earlier, on February 27, 2013, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, then-House Speaker John Boehner, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Lewis, and others joined President Barack Obama to dedicate a statue of Rosa Parks in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall — the first full-size statue of a Black person to be installed there. Obama praised Parks’s “singular act of courage,” while McConnell celebrated: “What a story, what a legacy, what a country.”

On that very same day, across the street, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Shelby County v. Holder. The case brought by Shelby County, Alabama, challenged two portions (Section 4b and Section 5) of the 1965 Voting Rights Act dealing with something called federal preclearance, which requires any changes affecting voting by certain states and municipalities to be precleared by the Department of Justice before being enacted to see if they will affect voting rights or voter participation. In June of that year, the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the law (Section 4b) that decided which municipalities would be subject to preclearance, saying it had “no logical relation to the present day.” They left the provision allowing preclearance (Section 5), but Congress would have to come up with a new formula of which municipalities would be subject. But seven years later (under Obama and now Trump), there is not yet one in place, meaning voters — especially Black and minority voters — are not protected against increasing local restrictions on their rights.

In other words, on the day Congress and the president dedicated a statue to honor Rosa Parks, a key part of the voting rights protection that Parks and her comrades had fought for decades to ensure was under siege and ultimately lost.

There’s a dangerous bait-and-switch these kinds of honors can perform. They place the struggle firmly in the past.

There’s a dangerous bait-and-switch these kinds of honors can perform. While they celebrate the courage and lifetime service freedom fighters like Rosa Parks and John Lewis embodied, they place the struggle firmly in the past and center the public’s task on memorializing, papering over contemporary struggles and present-day suffering. Erecting statues (and changing bridge names) too often become the ends themselves. Political leaders soothe us with these accomplishments, providing cover for those who eschew the hard work of racial justice to seem like they’re doing something. Such honors risk individualizing the movement, overlooking the myriad of people who fought and risked their lives from civil rights to the present day. “To make it about one person would be to forget all that Ms. Baker taught us…and that we reflected in all the organizing we SNCC folks did,” fellow Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Judy Richardson explained.

Lewis, Vivian, and Parks fought to the end of their lives, insistent that the struggle was far from over.  The way to honor them is to fix what is broken: voting rights, health care, and the criminal justice system from policing to incarceration.

In December 2019, the House passed a bill to restore the Voting Rights Act by introducing a new formula that requires preclearance for 11 states: nine in the South, plus California and New York, found to discriminate against Latinos and Asian Americans. As Ari Berman summarizes in Mother Jones, “The bill would also require all states to get federal approval for election changes that are known to disproportionately affect voters of color, such as strict voter ID laws, tighter voter registration requirements, and polling place closures in areas with large numbers of minority voters.” That bill has sat on Mitch McConnell’s desk for more than 200 days.

States With New Voting Restrictions Enacted Since 2016

Year States With New or Additional Voting Restrictions
2016 Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
2017 Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Texas.
2018 Arkansas, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.
2019 Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Tennessee, and Texas.

Source: Brennan Center for Justice

And it doesn’t go nearly far enough. From 2010 to 2019, as the Brennan Center documents, 25 states have passed voting rights restrictions. In the 2016 election, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place for the first time: Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In 2017, Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota, Texas passed new voter restrictions, and Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, and New Hampshire passed additional ones. In 2018, Arkansas, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wisconsin enacted new restrictions and in 2019, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Tennessee, and Texas passed more restrictions. Half the states in the country have enacted voter restrictions in the past decade; most of them are outside the deep South.

Given how widespread voter suppression is across the U.S., we need a new formula that applies to every state, and makes each state’s voting rules suspect. All changes should be inspected for how they will impact voter participation. We need automatic voter registration, early voting, and Election Day as a national holiday.


All Statues Are Local: The Great Toppling of 2020 and the Rebirth of Civic Imagination

Further, we need national legislation restoring voting rights to current and formerly incarcerated people. Incarcerated people are counted for reasons of political apportionment within the municipalities in which they are incarcerated — a modern three-fifths compromise, as the towns where prisons are located get more representation, while the people incarcerated typically can’t vote. In many states, even when people have served out their sentences, they are deprived of their right to vote through felon disfranchisement laws or new kinds of poll taxes. The day before Lewis and Vivian died, the Supreme Court refused to let Florida felons who completed their sentences vote in a primary without first paying fees, fines, and restitution. A poll tax was deemed legal by the Supreme Court last week.

And let’s be clear, McConnell is not the only problem. Most of these new voting restrictions are being enacted at the state level. So the way to honor Lewis, Vivian, and so many others means being unceasing in insisting that Congress — and our state legislatures — turn this ship around and begin to protect and extend voting rights.

We should also be careful that honoring these two civil rights heroes, who died of natural causes, doesn’t distract us from seeing all the people dying today who didn’t have to.

Two weeks before Lewis died, Pamela Rush died of Covid-19. Rush had exposed the racism, poverty, and environmental degradation she and her neighbors of Lowndes County, Alabama, were experiencing in a 2018 congressional hearing and across the country through the Poor People’s Campaign. In tears before the committee, Rush had described open sewage, predatory schemes, lack of health care, and the courage it took to overcome the shame to speak out: “They charged me over $114,000 on a mobile home that’s falling apart. I’ve trapped about four possums in my house. … And I got raw sewage. I don’t have no money. I’m poor.”

The average per capita income in Lowndes County today is $19,491, 72 percent of its residents are Black, and it has Alabama’s highest Covid-19 rates and no hospital. “As a pastor, I can no longer say that God called them home,” Rev. William Barber explained in eulogizing Rush and other poor people who died from Covid-19. “The systems of this world are unjust.” The structures of racism — from unequal access to health care to environmental racism to being clustered in “essential jobs” — have made the numbers of Black people affected and dying of the novel coronavirus disproportionately high.

In 1965, the Selma to Montgomery march passed through Lowndes County, where not a single Black person was registered to vote due to voter suppression. The day before Rush died, the Supreme Court overturned an Alabama trial judge’s decision which would have made it easier to vote absentee during the pandemic.

One of the dangers in the ways the nation tends to honor civil rights heroes like Parks and Lewis is to relegate such glorious courage to the distant past, at times misusing the civil rights movement to chastise and correct young activists. But with the protests against the death of George Floyd at the hands of police constituting the largest wave of civil rights activism in the country’s history and 2.5 million people nationwide participating in the Poor People’s Campaign Moral Gathering on June 20, yesterday’s issues are just as urgent today. Today’s activists are picking up the baton with the kind of courage, persistence, and belief in disruption these elders showed. Let’s not settle for a bridge name.

Jeanne Theoharis will be donating her fee for this article to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which is paying off the fines so people can vote, and to the Poor People’s Campaign.

Correction: July 21, 2020
This article has been updated to more accurately describe federal preclearance.

Join The Conversation