We don't want to go back
John Lewis is my hero.
His unwavering belief in the dignity of every human being has driven his life—a life focused on making our democracy more authentic, more inclusive. As a longtime civil rights activist, and a 27-year veteran of Congress, he exemplifies moral certainty and perseverance. At times he has put his life on the line to dismantle a violent, racist culture and to confront a frequently complicit government, in order to guarantee all citizens full citizenship, including full access to the vote.
For Lewis, civil rights is about all of us. In his 1998 memoir, he recalled screening white college students volunteering to participate in Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964. He reminded them: “Don’t come to Mississippi this summer to save the Mississippi Negro. Only come if you understand, really understand, that his freedom and yours are one.”
On June 25 the Supreme Court ruled Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional. In doing so, the Court ended the requirement that states with a history of discrimination gain federal approval before making any changes in the way they hold elections. It was a powerful provision, putting the burden on election officials, instead of on the electorate.
I happened to be watching late night news as congressional advocates of voting rights spoke out against the decision. I frequently tune out disappointing news but it was impossible to ignore the final speaker, John Lewis.
“The Supreme Court has struck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Voting rights had been given and taken away. It took 100 years—from 1865 to 1965—to get them back,” he told the audience. “We don’t want to go back. We want to go forward.”
That dagger also struck the heart of John Lewis. He was mournful yet defiant. He called for all of us to mobilize Congress to repair the damage caused by the Court.
Lewis knows better than anyone what it took to get back the voting rights given to blacks following the Civil War. Recent battles to constrict the vote are evidence that the right to vote is not secure.
More than 50 years ago, a relentless strategy of nonviolent maneuvering challenged a democracy that tolerated the racism and violence used to enforce segregation, second-class citizenship and exclusion from the vote. As a leader of this movement, Lewis was part of the reason that the Voting Rights Act passed.
Lewis grew up the child of sharecroppers in rural Alabama. When he went to seminary in Nashville in 1957, he met James Lawson, a proponent of nonviolence. Lawson’s influence changed the course of Lewis’s life. As an early member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council, Lewis became part of the youth vanguard that challenged the older generation’s gradualist approach to change. He expressed his beliefs and commitment through nonviolent action, joining a movement to expose and frustrate those who excluded blacks from full participation in society. He put himself in danger by challenging segregation at lunch-counter protests in Nashville, and as a Freedom Rider facing down the wrath of Bull Connor. He was one of many who shed blood marching for voting rights on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala.
Lewis has moral standing gained through sustained involvement and sometimes-terrifying personal experiences. The sanctity of voting rights is deep in his being. When he spoke out against the Court’s ruling, the history of the struggle and the depth of its meaning came forth from him. It was personal. The Court’s decision was a terrible blow to the ongoing struggle for democracy.
It seems that the Supreme Court is out of touch with our national history of exclusion, with the struggle by disenfranchised masses of people to claim their rights, and with the reality that people with power are willing to protect their interests at the expense of democracy.
No one knows better than Lewis what the past looked like and felt like, and what was involved in the struggle to make progress. We must not ignore his warning. We cannot go backward. It is up to all of us to make sure we don’t.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.