Last week, LWVUS interns Clara Roberts and Sam Pevear attended a National Archives talk by Congressman John Lewis, a voting and civil rights pioneer referred to as "one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced.” Below is what they took away from the event.
The excitement was palpable as we filed into the National Archives auditorium, but it became even more extraordinary once Representative John Lewis -- Congressman, Freedom Rider and hero -- entered the room. We listened in a spell of unbroken silence as NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed Representative Lewis about the pieces of civil rights history he had not only witnessed, but also played a key role in shaping.
Lewis, who the League was honored to have speak at our 2010 Convention in Atlanta, remarked that although his parents warned him not to get into trouble, he was consistently “inspired to get [into]…good trouble, necessary trouble.” He recalled being arrested for peaceful demonstration 40 times during the civil rights movement and an additional four times since being elected to office. In 1961, he joined the Freedom Riders, a group of activists who rode Greyhound buses throughout the segregated south in efforts to challenge Jim Crow laws. Lewis endured a concussion as a result of the angry mobs he and the Freedom Riders encountered. But all he “really did” in the fight for civil rights, he said, was “give a little blood” while others gave their lives.
Lewis, who played a key role in helping pass the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, spoke about the discriminatory poll taxes and literacy tests in place prior to the VRA, including how some polling places required African American voters to count how many jellybeans were in a jar before they were allowed to cast their ballots. Lewis noted that before he helped lead voting rights demonstrations and registration efforts in Alabama, the town of Marin, AL, was not home to a single black voter -- despite the fact that its population was 80 percent African American.
Nearly five decades after the civil rights movement and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Lewis still works tirelessly to protect the vote, including recently banding with thousands of activists to commemorate Bloody Sunday and the struggle for voting rights. Lewis is also one of the most vocal proponents of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which ensures that every American citizen, regardless of race, has an equal right to vote. Lewis called the legislation, which is currently up for review by the Supreme Court, “the heart and soul of the Voting Rights Act.” Indeed, LWVUS has used Section 5 as a crucial means of challenging discriminatory voter laws over the last several decades. Even as recently as this past election cycle, Section 5 helped block a number of proposed election laws that would have discriminated against minority voters.
Lewis recalled how his own parents and grandparents faced voter discrimination at the polls, and how one of the first things his great grandfather did as a free man was register to vote. “It should be as simple to vote as to get a glass of water,” said Lewis. He joked that fighting for equal voting rights “must be in my DNA.” Regardless of whether it’s genetic, we at LWVUS are thankful that John Lewis found his calling in fighting for equality and democracy for all. As Lewis said, it is because of the civil rights movement and the VRA that we now “live in a better country and are a better people.”