John Lewis and Kamala Harris (lmiddle at the 55th anniversary of the Selma march. (Photo credit: Office of Kamala Harris/Wikimedia Commons)
Last night, just before midnight, we heard the news that 80-year-old Georgia Representative John Lewis has passed away from pancreatic cancer.
As a young adult, Lewis was a “troublemaker,” breaking the laws of his state: he broke the laws upholding racial segregation. He organized voting registration drives and in 1960 was one of the thirteen original Freedom Riders, white and black students traveling together from Washington D.C. to New Orleans to challenge segregation. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,” Lewis later recalled.
An adherent of the philosophy of non-violence, Lewis was beaten by mobs and arrested 24 times. As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC—pronounced “snick”) he helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington where the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., told more than 200,000 people gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial that he had a dream. Just 23 years old, Lewis spoke at the event. Two years later, as Lewis and 600 marchers hoping to register African American voters in Alabama stopped to pray at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, mounted police troopers charged the marchers, beating them with clubs and bullwhips. They fractured Lewis’s skull.
To observers in 1965 reading the newspapers, Lewis was simply one of the lawbreaking protesters who were disrupting the “peace” of the South. But what seemed to be fruitless and dangerous protests were, in fact, changing minds. Shortly after the attack in Selma, President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) honored those changing ideas when he went on TV to support the marchers and call for Congress to pass a national voting rights bill. On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act authorizing federal supervision of voter registration in districts where African Americans were historically under-represented.
New black voters helped to elect Lewis to Congress in 1986. He has held the seat ever since, winning reelection 16 times.
Just over a month ago, on June 7, Representative Lewis visited the BLACK LIVES MATTER public art painted on a street in Washington, D.C., with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. Six days before, the president and Attorney General William Barr had set federal police in riot gear, wielding tear gas and rubber bullets, on the peaceful protesters nearby to clear them out of the way for a presidential photo-op. It must have been a chilling echo for Representative Lewis.
But he told Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart that he felt compelled to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza because he was “inspired” to see the peaceful protests in America and around the world against police violence. “It was so moving and so gratifying to see people from all over America and all over the world saying through their action, ‘I can do something. I can say something’,” Lewis told Capehart. “And they said something by marching and by speaking up and speaking out.”
Lewis said he had a warning for Trump. “Mr. President, the American people are tired and they cannot and will not take it anymore. They have a right to organize the unorganized. They have a right to protest in a peaceful, orderly, nonviolent fashion. You cannot stop the people with all of the forces that you may have at your command. You cannot stop people when they say ‘no.’”
This, of course, is exactly what Trump is afraid of. His polls are slipping as Americans turn away from his handling of the protests in the country and of the coronavirus pandemic. Today, Inside Elections showed 19 shifts in how states are likely to vote in 2020, and all of them were toward presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. “Trump’s job rating has been on a precipitous decline over the last two months, not only putting a second term increasingly out of reach but potentially wreaking havoc on GOP candidates down the ballot,” the site concluded.
Trump planned to win reelection with a strong economy, and bet big that ignoring the coronavirus would make the pandemic go away. He bet wrong. Many states, especially those in the South and West, reopened too early, and cases there are now spiking. Today, more than 70,000 new infections were reported in the U.S., and 18 states have had more than 100 cases per 100,000 people. More than 10,100 new cases were reported in California; more than 11,400 in Florida. We are approaching 140,000 deaths. A majority of Americans disapproves of the way Trump has handled the pandemic.
A report today in the Washington Post says that Trump has lost interest in the pandemic anyway. An adviser said the president is “not really working this anymore. He doesn’t want to be distracted by it. He’s not calling and asking about data. He’s not worried about cases.” Instead, he is worried about reelection, and has apparently concluded that pushing schools to reopen normally in just a few weeks will bring suburban women back to his standard.
According to a CNN article, Trump’s aides concluded that suburban women were stretched by homeschooling and childcare, and would welcome a return to normal. To do that, he has undercut his own medical advisers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who worry that reopening the schools without gaining control over the virus will create new hotspots. He appears to be trying to get schools to reopen by main force. Today the White House blocked the CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield from testifying before Congress about school reopenings. “The science should not stand in the way of this,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Thursday.
This gamble hasn’t paid off, either. Seventy-one percent of Americans, including 53% of Republicans, say reopening the schools is risky.
Now, Trump and his people have gone all-in on dividing the country, both to hold his base and to frighten his opponents with fascist tactics. The administration has sent federal agents in battle gear to Portland, Oregon, in what it says is an attempt to protect federal property.
But the complaints against the protesters are embarrassing. Yesterday Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf released a press release warning the American people just how dangerous the “violent anarchists” in Portland are. His list includes 17 counts of graffitiing a courthouse, damaging fences, “throwing animal seed” (what does this even mean?), vandalizing two security cameras, breaking windows, and throwing fireworks.
For these acts, unidentified officers in unmarked cars are pulling people off the streets. The officers appear to be from Customs and Border Protection, and a memo obtained by The Nation says they are a special task force created by the Department of Homeland Security in response to Trump’s Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence. The task force is called the Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT), and is supposed to combat civic unrest.
Local authorities have said repeatedly they do not want the federal officers there, and that they are deliberately aggravating the tensions in the city to gin up the Republican base with contrived images of violence. Today both of Oregon’s senator and the U.S. Attorney in Oregon called for an investigation into “constitutionally questionable arrests in Portland” by PACT.
Nonetheless, the administration has made it clear they intend to take these tactics nationwide. When asked about the arrests in Portland, Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli told NPR that “this is a posture we intend to continue not just in Portland but in any of the facilities that we’re responsible for around the country.”
It is worth noting that Wolf and Cuccinelli are both “acting” secretaries—they have not been confirmed by the Senate and thus are beholden to Trump for their jobs. Mark Morgan, who is in charge of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection is also an “acting” commissioner.
The administration’s actions in Portland are a major red flag for democracy. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi has called the law enforcement officials “stormtroopers.”
As the administration escalates its attacks on democracy, many of us are weary. In June, reporter Jonathan Capehart asked Representative Lewis “what he would say to people who feel as though they have already been giving it their all but nothing seems to change.” Lewis answered: “You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more. We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it, and now that need is greater than ever before.”
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair,” Lewis tweeted almost exactly a year before his death. “Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.”
Thank you, Sir. May you rest in power.
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History, Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter: get your free subscription here.