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Honoring the Life and Work of John Lewis

By Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen

John Lewis

America lost a hero on Friday, with the death of civil rights icon and longtime member of Congress John Lewis.

Lewis helped usher in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act — as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and through his bravery in marching across a bridge in Selma, Alabama, into a crowd of white racists who beat him to the edge of death.

Then he joined the very Congress he had pushed from the outside, serving more than three decades as a strong progressive and the “conscience of the Congress.”

Five years ago, Public Citizen honored John Lewis with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

He accepted the award with aplomb, as was his way, but he was much less concerned with regaling those of us at the ceremony with stories or basking in accolades than with uplifting and inspiring us to continue fighting for justice.

(He had to leave the ceremony early — to receive another organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award that same night! That’s what happens when your powerful example inspires universal admiration.)

As many of you will know, Lewis chronicled his life experience in a masterful memoir called Walking with the Wind.

Along with two colleagues, he also created a best-selling series of graphic novels, titled March, about his life.

There’s so much to learn from that life.

One thing is this: Although Lewis actually was a comic book hero, we have to remind ourselves that he was a hero, not a superhero.

We may never match his example of bravery, integrity, passion, and commitment to justice and equality. But we can aspire to do so, because he was a person.

He didn’t have superpowers, he just had a moral compass, and he followed where it pointed.

In March of last year, John Lewis gave the closing argument for passage of H.R. 1 — the For the People Act — which would truly democratize elections in this country, including through automatic voter registration and small-donor, public financing of elections.

It was an honor to be in the gallery at the House of Representatives to watch and hear Lewis.

In his powerful voice, he said:

You have heard me say on occasion that the right to vote is precious — almost sacred. In a democratic society, it is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have. In my heart of hearts, I believe we have a moral responsibility to restore access for all citizens, who desire to participate in the democratic process. Many people marched and protested for the right to vote. Some gave a little blood, and others gave their very lives.

Then, in December of last year, he served as the Speaker Pro Tempore (the temporary speaker) as the House voted to pass H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act — a bill to restore the Voting Rights Act, which had been undermined by a Supreme Court ruling.

Both H.R.1 and H.R.4 are languishing in the Senate, where Mitch McConnell has refused to give them consideration.

Sooner rather than later, however, this is a fight that McConnell will lose as the racial justice and democracy movements — in the name of John Lewis and so many others — demand and win these transformative reforms to deliver on the promise of American democracy.

These bills, Lewis said, “are on the right side of history.”

We know how to best honor the life and work of the great John Lewis: With protest and persistence. For the Right to Vote. For Justice. For Equality.