John Lewis came by his preacher’s cadence naturally. During his childhood, his first congregation was the flock of chickens populating his family coop. As a boy, the Georgia Congressman had been inspired by the Bible that an uncle gave him when he was four, giving him both a love of the Lord and an adoration of the written word. However, beyond that Bible, there weren’t many books in the Lewis household. They were very poor. They were black. And Jim Crow was alive in Troy, Alabama.
“I remember in 1956, when I was sixteen years old, with some of my brothers and sisters and cousins, going down to the public library, trying to get library cards,” he said in November of 2016, while accepting the National Book Award for co-authoring his autobiographical graphic-novel series March. “And we were told that the library was for whites only and not for coloreds.” That was when, even in a moment of joyful celebration and commemoration, the stirring voice that Americans have known so well cracked under the weight of painful remembrance.
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Lewis, who died of stage 4 pancreatic cancer on Friday at the age of 80, would not receive a library card from that Pike County Library until 1998, when he arrived there to sign copies of a book he’d himself written, Walking With the Wind. Nearly 20 years later, though, it was plain that Lewis’ emotional injury remained so fresh that not even a moment of singular triumph could suppress the pain. He did recount in March how he loved the library that he was able to access — at his segregated school. But consider that same young man, with the intelligence that we all know that he possessed, gaining access to the same books available to his white cohorts? What if Lewis didn’t have to employ his genius in the service of ensuring his and our survival as black people?
The passing of civil rights leaders such as Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian — Lewis’ 95-year-old movement collaborator who died in hospice care hours earlier that same day — provokes tributes and recollections of their courage in the face of violence and insults alike, as it should. Tales of their stoic nonviolent resistance to racist discrimination and degradation visited upon their bodies and minds, and how that changed the nation, fill our publications and social media feeds.
Given the fraught context of these two deaths, I propose we stage a different kind of remembrance. Rather than focusing purely on the late Lewis and Vivian, we should shine a harsher light onto the nation that failed them — the one that instead of being decent, set them along the path that made their heroism necessary in the first place. For so long, those two men and their contemporaries contemplated an America where a fight for basic civil rights should be unnecessary. Why does this nation, which claims to be so free and so brave, continue to require such bravery to be free?
These two men risked their lives in Selma for my right as an African American to have a say in this democracy, such that it is. In March of 1965, two weeks before the Voting Rights Act was introduced, Lewis famously suffered a skull fracture there as Alabama state troopers ambushed a protest march to Montgomery atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A month beforehand, Vivian had led a group to the Dallas County courthouse after being blocked at the registrar, wagging a finger in the face of county sheriff Jim Clark while saying, “You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote, because as citizens of these United States, we have the right to do it.” Clark punched Vivian in the face so hard that he broke his own hand.
It is incalculable: both the energy that has been expended on defending basic human rights and the potential that has been and is currently being wasted by unjustly denying the American promise. After their passing, I considered an America where Lewis and Vivian didn’t have to use their considerable talents — much less sacrifice blood, skin, and bone — to fight for civil rights that they should have had in the first place. Imagine what Lewis and Vivian, two enormously talented orators, might otherwise have done with their talents. Perhaps they would have become pastors — after all, Dr. King called Vivian the “greatest preacher to ever live.” I need not add a word to that compliment, considering the source. Perhaps Lewis may have followed his eventual path into politics, but even earlier. Could he have become our first black president instead of Barack Obama? Who knows, but the point isn’t to consider the heights that these men may have reached, measured by our petty standards of celebrity and power. It is to know that the promise of America is that anyone and everyone can chase their potential and their dreams with equal access to the rights guaranteed by law. John Lewis and C.T. Vivian are heroes, but they became patriots because America required them to be.
As if to provide a parting insult, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority exacerbated the very problem of voter discrimination that Lewis and Vivian fought against with a disastrous ruling on the eve of their deaths. The Court’s conservative majority all but deprived more than one million formerly incarcerated — and newly re-enfranchised — Floridians of the vote, the majority of whom are black and Latino. It ensured that they will be required to pay any and all fees and fines associated with their felony sentences — indeterminate amounts that the state does not have the capacity to assess before Election Day — before being allowed to register. Amendment 4, approved by a wide, bipartisan majority of state voters in 2018, did not include this provision; state Republican legislators and governor Ron DeSantis added it to circumvent the people’s will. Poll taxes, to which this is equivalent, are supposed to be unconstitutional, but America has a history of changing or amending the rules to help white men preserve power when it is threatened.
That same Voting Rights Act for which Lewis and Vivian risked themselves, and which Lewis fought for decades in Congress to reauthorize, remains neutered by the Roberts Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has done nothing for more than 220 days with a bill sitting on his desk that would repair that Act, issued a statement after Lewis’ death that included biographical details he and his staff could have gleaned from a momentary Google search.
When I spoke with Lewis in his office about a year and a half ago, he openly called President Trump a racist and said of racism itself, “Every so often this deeply embedded sickness raises its ugly head in different forms and fashion. We try to sweep it under the rug, we try to sweep it into some dark corner. But we must continue to do what we can to bury it so that it never rises again. To wash it from the shores of America.” But McConnell and his party continue to support this president and further policies regressive to civil rights, and thus are heirs to the very enemies of the work Lewis and Vivian did during the movement. McConnell did add a fond memory of “joining hands with John as members of Congress sang We Shall Overcome at a 2008 ceremony honoring his friend,” Dr. King. That and the customary King quote that followed were not merely some I’m Not Racist virtue signaling: It benefits McConnell to have the arc of moral justice be very, very long, even if it does bend ever so slightly towards justice.
Much is being made of honoring Lewis by renaming the Pettus Bridge in Selma or this atrophying voting-rights fix for him. But this man wasn’t about symbols; he was about results. “We cannot have another major election in America until we fix the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” he told me during that interview in 2019. “If not, some people gonna have hell to pay.” Men like McConnell, who is up for re-election in Kentucky, should face a fateful political price for refusing to repair the Voting Rights Act, especially as he behaves as though he is honoring Lewis. Vote suppression is not a bloodless crime, as demonstrated by the lives of Lewis and Vivian alone. By praising the man whose life’s work he is attempting to destroy, the Senate Majority Leader is attempting what might be termed as “blackwashing.” McConnell is trying to wipe his hands clean on a funeral shroud.
In 2015, Vivian was asked on Democracy Now! whether full voting rights have been achieved. “There is nothing we haven’t done for this nation,” he responded. “We’ve died for it. But it’s been overlooked, what we’ve done for it. But we kept knowing the scriptures. We kept living by faith. We kept understanding that it’s something deeper than politics that makes life worth living.”
It is admirable, certainly, but this kind of valor is an unfortunate necessity in a nation that continues to fail black people and other Americans of color. Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian employed their intellect and altruism for incredible benefit, and they are two of the finest Americans who ever lived. But they shouldn’t have needed to be. Those today who have similar talents should be free to exhibit moral clarity in ways that go beyond the battles for basic human rights in the supposed “land of the free.” As we both mourn and celebrate these men, we need to demand more of the country that, sadly, continues to require their brand of heroism.
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