No Bridge too Far — Remembering Congressman John Lewis and the Fight Still Ahead

Ray Curry, Secretary-Treasurer, UAW | 8/26/2020, 10:03 a.m.
“The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.” ...
The legendary planners of the 1963 March on Washington meet in New York City in 1963, including (left to right): John Lewis, Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James L. Farmer Jr. and Roy Wilkins. Photo provided by UAW

This month marks the 55th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the most powerful pieces of civil rights legislation in our history. The passage of the VRA into law was the result of decades of struggle and sacrifice and was truly a shining moment in our history.

Unfortunately, the struggle to ensure that all Americans have the right and opportunity to vote not only continues today, we have actually suffered significant losses on this front over the past decade. Some of the most critical protections of the VRA, designed to remove legal barriers at state and local levels that prevented African Americans from voting, were essentially gutted by a devastating 2013 Supreme Court decision. With one stroke of the pen, the Court set us back decades and created an environment where we’ve seen numerous court challenges to voting rights and other legal measures designed to further weaken the protections of the VRA. All resulting in suppression of African American and minorities participating in the process.

Add to this this the fact that many states are imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls. These efforts have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls in recent elections, hitting all Americans, but placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people and young and old voters.

Adding to these now restored obstacles are new impediments — polling places consolidated in urban areas to make lines longer (and scarier given the poorly contained reach of the deadly coronavirus) and attempts to throw shade on mail-in ballots. Despite the fact that the evidence shows us that absentee voting is safe and secure.

Time for Good Trouble

It comes to this: Americans are being cut out of the process by other Americans. A great victory, fought for on bloody streets and across bloody bridges, a score settled and signed into law all those years ago has been compromised in the courts. Time to despair? Nope. It sounds to me like it’s time again for some good trouble.

Good trouble was what American hero and Congressman John Lewis called the struggle for this all-important right of every American. Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, served in the House of Representatives from 1987 until his death last month, spent decades working as an organizer and activist, was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and original freedom rider. He helped organize the March on Washington in lockstep with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph. He walked into a beating from Alabama state troopers who cracked his head bloody and gassed him along with hundreds of marchers in the cause of voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

He witnessed and rejoiced in the passage of the VRA alongside his fellow freedom marchers and years later, would have to see the Supreme Court decimate the act. Lewis knew that the court’s decision would reopen the door to voter suppression, but he refused to give in to defeat.