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A year ago last week, Georgia Representative John Lewis passed away from pancreatic cancer at 80 years old. As a young adult, Lewis was a “troublemaker,” breaking the laws of his state: 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 nonviolence, 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 march. 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 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 underrepresented.
When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, just 6.7 percent of Black voters in Mississippi were registered to vote. Two years later, almost 60% of them were. In 1986, those new Black voters helped to elect Lewis to Congress. He held the seat until he died, winning reelection 16 times.
Now, just a year after Representative Lewis’s death, the voting rights for which he fought are under greater threat than they have been since 1965. After the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision of the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act by taking away Department of Justice supervision of election changes in states with a history of racial discrimination, Republican-dominated state legislatures began to enact measures that would cut down on minority voting.
At Representative Lewis’s funeral, former President Barack Obama called for renewing the Voting Rights Act. “You want to honor John?” he said. “Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for.” Instead, after the 2020 election, Republican-dominated legislatures ramped up their effort to skew the vote in their favor by limiting access to the ballot. As of mid-June 2021, 17 states had passed 28 laws making it harder to vote, while more bills continue to move forward.
Then, on July 1, by a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court handed down Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, saying that the state of Arizona did not violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act when it passed laws that limited ballot delivery to voters, family members, or caregivers, or when it required election officials to throw out ballots that voters had cast in the wrong precincts by accident.
The fact that voting restrictions affect racial or ethnic groups differently does not make them illegal, Justice Samuel Alito wrote. “The mere fact that there is some disparity in impact does not necessarily mean that a system is not equally open or that it does not give everyone an equal opportunity to vote.”
Justice Elena Kagan wrote a blistering dissent, in which Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined. “If a single statute represents the best of America, it is the Voting Rights Act,” Kagan wrote, “It marries two great ideals: democracy and racial equality. And it dedicates our country to carrying them out.” She explained, “The Voting Rights Act is ambitious, in both goal and scope. When President Lyndon Johnson sent the bill to Congress, ten days after John Lewis led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he explained that it was “carefully drafted to meet its objective—the end of discrimination in voting in America.” It gave every citizen “the right to an equal opportunity to vote.”
“Much of the Voting Rights Act’s success lay in its capacity to meet ever-new forms of discrimination,” Kagan wrote. Those interested in suppressing the vote have always offered “a non-racial rationalization” even for laws that were purposefully discriminatory. Poll taxes, elaborate registration regulations, and early poll closings were all designed to limit who could vote but were defended as ways to prevent fraud and corruption, even when there was no evidence that fraud or corruption was a problem. Kagan noted that the Arizona law permitting the state to throw out ballots cast in the wrong precinct invalidated twice as many ballots cast by Indigenous Americans, Black Americans, and Hispanic Americans as by whites.
“The majority’s opinion mostly inhabits a law-free zone,” she wrote.
Congress has been slow to protect voting rights. Although it renewed the Voting Rights Act by an overwhelming majority in 2006, that impulse has disappeared. In March 2021, the House of Representatives passed the For the People Act on which Representative Lewis had worked, a sweeping measure that protects the right to vote, removes dark money from politics, and ends partisan gerrymandering. Republicans in the Senate killed the bill, and Democrats were unwilling to break the filibuster to pass it alone.
An attempt simply to restore the provision of the Voting Rights Act gutted in 2013 has not yet been introduced, although it has been named: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Only one Republican, Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, has signed on to the bill.
Last week, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Representative Joyce Beatty (D-OH), was arrested with eight other protesters in the Hart Senate Office Building for demanding legislation to protect voting rights.
After her arrest, Beatty tweeted: “You can arrest me. You can’t stop me. You can’t silence me.”
Last June, Representative Lewis told Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart that he was “inspired” by last summer’s 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.”
Capehart asked 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.”
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.