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In tribute to John Lewis: Renew the Voting Rights Act

John Lewis, civil rights hero and congressman, has died with his cause unfinished.

Rep. John Lewis
Rep. John Lewis crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge commemorating the 55th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, Alabama, on March 1.
REUTERS/Michael A. McCoy

The following is an editorial from the Mankato Free Press.

This was where he came in.

John Lewis rose to prominence almost 60 years ago as one of the youngest leaders of the civil rights movement. He was an original Freedom Rider. He founded the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. He was the youngest of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who organized the touchstone 1963 March on Washington.

And he was the leader of the “Bloody Sunday” march on Selma, Alabama, in 1965. The savage beating Lewis took from the state police that day in March fractured his skull and left physical scars still visible a half-century later. It also galvanized public opinion nationally and helped push the Voting Rights Act into law.

Lewis, 80, died July 17 during another period of unrest over racism, on a weekend in which militarized federal agents sought to suppress Black Lives Matter protesters in Oregon. The shift in public opinion on systemic racism in weeks since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police mimics the shift that followed Lewis’ beating by the Alabama troopers.

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History repeats itself. A battle once won may still have to be refought.

And that is certainly the case with the Voting Rights Act. Lewis, who served more than 30 years in Congress, shepherded the most recent reauthorization of that landmark law through Congress in 2006 only to see it gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. In a majority opinion that was either naive or malevolent, Chief Justice John Roberts held that electoral racism was a relic of the past.

Virtually as soon as the preclearance section of the act was struck down, jurisdictions that had been required to clear voting law changes with the Justice Department predictably began imposing restrictions designed to suppress minority voters and turnout: photo ID requirements, closed polling places, purged registrations. Voters in Lewis’ home state of Georgia this year endured 6-hour waits to vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement upon Lewis’ death: “He endured hatred and violence. But he kept working, because he was convinced that our nation had to be better.”

That sentiment is 14-karat nothing. McConnell and his Republican majority have buried a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, passed by the House in December, for months. Passing that reauthorization is the tribute Lewis deserves.

Republished with permission.

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