Rev. Jesse Jackson first met former U.S. Rep. John Lewis in Greensboro, North Carolina when the two were young civil rights activists fighting racial segregation.
Both made the pilgrimage to the southern city after four Black college students sparked a massive youth civil rights movement in 1960 by daring to sit at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and politely ask for service.
Those students, and the activists who flocked to them, inspired a generation of teenagers to break racist Jim Crow laws in the South and created the modern Civil Rights Movement. But what struck Jackson was how ordinary Lewis was – even when jumping to do extraordinary things.
“There was a certain average quality about him – an averageness,” Jackson told USA TODAY. “He was one of the guys. He was not imposing. But he had that courage factor.”
Their friendship would span six decades through historic marches, assassinations and elections until Lewis died in July 2020 from pancreatic cancer.
Jackson, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2017, said Lewis was troubled by the rise of new laws making it harder to vote.
He said the two would hold daily strategy sessions about what must be done in the halls of power and the grassroots level if his friend were alive today.
“He had more moral authority than anybody within Congress by virtue of the blood he shed,” Jackson said. “There is redeeming power in blood, you know? He had suffered, bled and got a concussion for the struggle.”
Lewis’s death last year left a hole in not just Congress, but in the civil rights universe, according to friends and allies.
Now in the midst of arguably America’s most divisive debate on voting rights since the 1960s, the heirs to Lewis’ mantle are wondering what and how is the best way to honor his legacy amid a swarm of new election laws that tighten the rules around the ballot box.
Many say the most productive course is for Congress to pass a bill bearing Lewis’ name that fortifies the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Others, however, contend that voting rights advocates must walk in Lewis’s earlier footsteps by getting into “good trouble” and in the way of state legislatures and Congress if swift action isn’t taken.
Leading up to the year anniversary of Lewis’ death, Rep. Joyce Beatty, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, locked arms with a group of activists on Thursday to protest for a proposal expanding voting rights.
“We will not be turned around. We will keep walking,” Beatty tweeted on Thursday, before being arrested by Capitol Police. “We will fight for freedom. We will fight for our right to vote!”
We will not be turned around. We will keep walking. We will fight for freedom. We will fight for our right to vote! pic.twitter.com/uyJHXEy8Y0
— Joyce Beatty (@RepBeatty) July 15, 2021
The demonstration paralleled many of the images that dotted Lewis’ biography, which is a map of almost every significant event to dismantle legal segregation.
In 1961, he was one of the original Freedom Riders, a group of roughly a dozen trailblazers who rode buses through the South’s segregated interstate system.
Two years later, Lewis, who was president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at age 23, was the youngest of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who spearheaded the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Jackson noted how Lewis’ speech during that demonstration was considered so fiery that older leaders insisted he change the language.
“They made him cut half of his speech out for being too radical for the crowd — it really wasn’t,” he said.
Soon after Lewis stepped into arguably the most important moment of his life when he participated in the 1965 campaign in Selma, Alabama, which became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
During those demonstrations Lewis and others led hundreds across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where activists were tear gassed by police. He almost died during the march after having his skull fractured, but the protest eventually led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Ga., who is four decades younger than Jackson, also has intimate memories of her late mentor.
She recalls him being an avid shopper who couldn’t resist visiting a Dillard’s or when, without being invited, Lewis surprised her by attending her swearing in ceremony when she was elected to the Georgia Senate in 2017.
“I knew that that meant that he was anticipating big things for me, and I had a legacy to uphold, and he was going to be watching,” said Williams, who now holds Lewis’ former congressional seat.
“He wasn’t just that person that was going to be in your ‘Amen corner,'” she added. “He would let you know if you needed to get it together and do something differently.”
Williams, like Lewis, isn’t afraid to throw her body in the way.
In 2018, while serving in the Georgia legislature, she was arrested at the state capitol for protesting about uncounted ballots in the governor’s race.
“For Congressman Lewis, good trouble wasn’t just a tagline. It was a way of life,” she said. “And he would always tell us, you have to dramatize it.”
One way Williams and other House Democrats are doing that is by returning to Washington to huddle with a group of Texas Democratic state lawmakers, who left their special legislative session to shut down an election bill backed by the GOP-controlled legislature that would make sweeping changes to voting rules in the state.
In addition to the Texas Democrats’ protest, voting rights advocates have engaged in direct action to oppose Republican efforts to tighten election rules, including rallies and calls to lawmakers, but not akin to the scale or ferocity of the heyday 60s civil rights protests when millions took to the streets across the South.
“Sometimes you do need to ruffle the feathers a little bit more,” said Kristin Fulwyli, managing director of Equal Ground, a Florida-based community activist group.
“John Lewis was all about good trouble, and good trouble is being vocal and being able to educate our communities but also getting in the way,” Fulwyli said.
Williams said people are active in different ways but that the rising concerns about changes at the ballot box are creating a new engine of activism.
“I have my marching orders, and I hope that other people are taking heed,” she said.
What about the John Lewis bill?
President Joe Biden twice evoked Lewis’ name when warning Americans about what he sees as Republican legislative threats to voting during a speech in Philadelphia this week.
Biden called on Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, saying it’s a “national imperative.”
Let the people vote. Fight for justice. pic.twitter.com/JnEUPl9KJW
— Joyce Beatty (@RepBeatty) July 15, 2021
But so far, the proposal bearing the civil rights icon’s name hasn’t been introduced in Congress in the Democratic-controlled House.
“We cannot wait until October or November,” Beatty, a Democrat from Ohio, said at a recent news conference.
Beatty was one of nine people arrested on Thursday during a voting rights demonstration at the Capitol demanding the Senate to pass the For the People Act.
“Let the people vote,” a tweet from Beatty’s official account said. “Fight for justice.”
— Joyce Beatty (@RepBeatty) July 15, 2021
Beatty entered the Capitol chanting, “End the filibuster!” according to footage taken by reporters, before being zip-tied by police. She later shared another tweet saying, “#GoodTrouble.”
Many of Lewis’ former colleagues, citing several states that have adopted new election rules that have made it harder to vote in the past year, said the Lewis named bill should be brought to the floor as early as this month.
“We should get that done to honor Mr. Lewis’ legacy and secure voting rights for all people in our country because voting rights cannot wait,” said Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Colorado.
To protect our democracy and the sanctity of the vote, we must pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
It is a national imperative.
— President Biden (@POTUS) July 13, 2021
David Becker, an elections law expert, said he’s not sure why the legislation hasn’t been introduced yet. He said a record for its need has already been established by Congress in the past, and it has the potential to garner bipartisan support.
“It’s an important bill,” said Becker, who is founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “I also believe it’s an important part of the legacy of Rep. Lewis… I hope that both parties in Congress can come together and introduce that bill as soon as possible and tailor it as needed to get it passed to protect the voters in those states that are most likely to face discrimination.”
Though less ambitious than Democrat’s sprawling For The People Act, the Lewis bill looks to restore parts of the vaunted Voting Rights Act, which legal experts argue has been gutted by the Supreme Court for the past decade.
Among its goals would be bringing back a pre-clearance formula that would require states with a history of racial discrimination in their voting laws to obtain approval from the Justice Department or federal courts before making any election changes.
The high court struck down that part of the original Voting Rights Act in 2013, ruling the formula was outdated. But the court did not rule that the requirement itself was unconstitutional.
Most recently, the Supreme Court upheld two controversial election laws in Arizona that scholars said eroded another key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
In recent weeks, Democrats in the House and Senate have held several hearings on voting rights, including one Wednesday.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. and chairman of the elections subcommittee of the House Administration Committee, expressed optimism that there will be more support for the Lewis bill than the For The People Act, which failed to get enough GOP backing last month to begin debate.
Among the changes supporters of the Lewis bill are considering, Butterfield said, would be creating a national formula that would require federal oversight of any state election rule changes.
But the congressman acknowledged such a change would make it a challenge to get enough support in the Senate, adding House Democrats first want to prove there’s still a problem for minorities voting in certain states.
He said sometime in August his panel will send findings from its hearings to the House Judiciary Committee, which will ultimately write the legislation.
“That’s what the art of politics is all about,” Butterfield said. “We have to get the formula first. Get it on paper. Get the thousands of pages of documentation that we’re accumulating and we can make the case to our Senate friends.”
Multiple ways to honor Lewis’ legacy
Heirs to the Lewis mantle on voting rights had mixed reactions to Biden’s Philadelphia speech and about what should be the best way to overcome the GOP legislative and legal victories.
Nancy Wang, executive director of the Detroit-based Voters Not Politicians, said the president’s speech was forceful and direct. She said Michigan activists have been on the frontlines of resisting certain legislative election changes in the wake of the 2020 election.
Biden’s message was a needed boost to morale, Wang said.
“We voters are doing every single thing we can in our seat to save our democracy from politicians who are supposed to be serving us,” she said.
Others were more critical of the speech and said that, while evoking Lewis, the president should have outlined a plan of action.
Biden did not once mention changing the Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster, for instance, which has been a demand on the political left for months.
Liberal critics and Democratic lawmakers have recently argued that using the 60-vote threshold in the Senate is an archaic legislative maneuver that has historically been used to block civil rights.
“Good speech, so what’s the strategy? #EndTheFilibusterNow,” Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown tweeted.
Good speech so what’s the strategy? #EndTheFilibusterNow
— LaTosha Brown (@MsLaToshaBrown) July 13, 2021
Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock the Vote, said whatever the thinking was about Biden’s remarks, those fighting to expand voting access realize they must pull various levers at once.
“There is a resistance to this issue that necessitates multiple actions and multiple avenues for action,” she said. “Legislative is one, protest is another, but whatever it is I think there has to be amplification.”
Brown’s group, for instance, ripped a page out of the Lewis-led Freedom Rides and conducted a week-long bus tour through the South last month to, among other things, push for action on the congressional measures.
National and local voting rights leaders joined the organization on the tour, including at a vigil in front of the Supreme Court and a rally on the National Mall near where Lewis spoke during the famed 1963 March on Washington.
Advocates have ramped up efforts to pressure the White House and lawmakers, including Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, a key voice in resisting the elimination of the filibuster.
Diallo Brooks, national field director for People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said Biden should do more to persuade his former Senate colleagues to support voting rights legislation.
“We want the president to lean in with everything he can and the White House can do,” he said. “It’s really urgent.”
Brooks and other advocates said that must include addressing the filibuster.
“It’s not one of those conversations you just pass off… We feel like they’ve taken some steps. We want to reiterate to them how important this is to folks.”
Vice President Kamala Harris, who is leading the administration’s voting rights initiatives, was asked during an interview with NPR this week whether she was telling senators to support a carveout to the filibuster for voting rights as some House Democratic leaders have touted. She said she was “certainly having conversations with folks.”
“People need to bring heat to that negotiation,” DeWitt, the Rock the Vote president, said. “Because right now it doesn’t seem necessarily to those who are part of those considerations really understand how important it is.”
Others such as Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, concur that the political temperature has surpassed a boiling point. She said the Senate vote last month not to start debate on the For the People Act should be as clear a sign as any that more direct action is necessary.
“When those senators did not vote to at least discuss voting rights, to me, that was a shot across the bow,’’ she said.
This week, Campbell’s group, along with a coalition of faith, labor, social justice, voting rights and civil rights organizations, hosted a tele town hall and a campaign to call Senate offices. The coalition also demonstrated Thursday on Capitol Hill where Beatty was arrested..
Campbell, who was arrested, said much like Lewis and others did in the 1960s, the fight to protect voting rights will require increased activism to force change.
“Is it easy? No. But it wasn’t easy for our ancestors and our predecessors,” said Campbell, who worked with Lewis on civil rights issues for years. “They gave us a road map. We need to use it. So as we think about him a year later talking good trouble. That’s what we have to get in. We have to all get in good trouble.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Heirs to late civil rights icon John Lewis’ vow to make ‘good trouble’ in fight over election laws