WASHINGTON — The thunderous, eloquent voice of Rep. John Lewis of Georgia will be sorely missed in Congress and throughout our nation, maybe for years to come.
Lewis was appropriately called “the conscience of Congress” in the unending struggle for African American voting rights that continues to this very day.
“It is heartbreaking to witness this [Justice] Department’s touting of minimal, substandard actions as it seemingly deserts its mission to uphold voting rights laws,” Lewis complained in a letter to Attorney General William Barr just a few weeks before he died July 17, at the age of 80, after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Former President Barack Obama said in a statement that Lewis had an “enormous impact” in U.S. history, especially as a champion of civil rights laws that lifted the Black community into a major voting bloc throughout the country, especially the South.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that Lewis would lie in state for two days in the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda.
Few journalists knew him as well as Joe Davidson, a longtime Washington Post columnist.
“As mourners honor the courage that earned [Lewis] his reputation as the conscience of Congress, there is another characteristic that stands out for those who knew him from his days as a young civil rights activist — Consistency,” Davidson wrote this week.
“Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, was among that most persistent and unwavering voices in the fight for African American voting rights.”
“‘It’s still a source of pain that the Voting Rights Act has not been more actively enforced,’ Lewis told me in 1975, 10 years after the passage of the law,” Davidson wrote Tuesday.
“Fifty-five years after passage, Lewis was still feeling that pain — during a period when President Trump denounces voting by mail and Republican officials use Black voter suppression as an electoral tactic,” he added.
“A rampant war is being waged against minorities’ voting rights ... but the Department of Justice is failing to show up for duty,” Lewis stated in his letter to Barr. “It is a shame and a disgrace.”
Davidson added that the Justice Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment on Lewis’ findings. Gosh, I wonder why.
But Davidson described what Lewis had to go through in his efforts to make the voting rights laws effective.
“Lewis was a constant in the tough, unending battle to make America the democracy it struggles to be,” Davidson stated.
“During a 1975 voter registration rally in Iberville Parish, Louisiana, Lewis recalled a 31-year-old Black woman telling him, ‘I cannot go out and vote, because they kill all our leaders,’” the Post columnist wrote.
Still, there were success stories. “One was in Bolton, Mississippi, a tiny town where Bennie G. Thompson took office as mayor in 1973.
“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Voting Rights Act,” Thompson said told Davidson.
“The Voting Rights Act took away many of the barriers to African Americans registering to vote,” Thompson conveyed.
Thinking of John Lewis’s crusade, Thompson describes himself as “a real beneficiary of his lifetime of advocacy.”
The bottom line in all of this is a testament to the work of one man, John Lewis, who fought the enemies of free and open elections and won many battles. May he rest in peace.
Donald Lambro has been covering Washington politics for more than 50 years as a reporter, editor and commentator.