Given the fact a segment of summertime protesters have spent part of the season pulling down and defacing statues and buildings, it’s ironic that some Americans are now giddy about renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge for late civil rights icon John Lewis, brutally beaten there by Alabama state troopers during a 1965 march pressing for what soon emerged as the Voting Rights Act. If Lewis’ life teaches us anything, it’s that dedicated Americans must get beyond honorific obsessions, seize the moment and press hard for serious civil rights reform.
Former President Obama smartly seized the moment in eulogizing Lewis during the latter’s Atlanta funeral Thursday. He challenged those who claim to respect Lewis’ life and goals to support fixing the Voting Rights Act, neutered by the Supreme Court of the United States in a 2013 decision that is stunning to read today. In it Chief Justice John Roberts claims an America where voter suppression and racism scarcely exist. Even conservative judges on appeals courts have since acknowledged that, yes, discrimination is alive and well in statehouses nationwide, including here in Texas.
“If politicians want to honor John, and I’m so grateful for the legacy of work of all the congressional leaders who are here, but there’s a better way than a statement calling him a hero,” Obama told mourners. “You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. And by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute. But John wouldn’t want us to stop there, trying to get back to where we already were. Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better.”
Obama went on to include ways to improve voting rights, including making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve earned a second chance; adding polling places; expanding early voting; and making Election Day a national holiday, “so if you are someone who is working in a factory or you are a single mom who has got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot.”
Only weeks before cancer claimed him, Congressman Lewis lambasted the fallout from the Supreme Court’s myopic decision to free certain states (including Texas) with a sustained history of voter suppression from securing U.S. Department of Justice clearance before implementing any change impacting voting: The DOJ, the last line of defense in countering politically motivated assaults on balloting, has devolved into a partisan stooge, employing (to quote Lewis) “minimal, substandard actions as it seemingly deserts its mission to uphold voting rights laws.” If lawmakers are sincere in their tributes to Lewis and their supposed faith in the American electorate, their next step is clear.