This month marks the first anniversary of the death of civil rights icon John Lewis, U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, a voting battleground in the 2020 general election.
At the time of his death, I remember thinking about how incredibly blessed he was to see this generation pick up the torch for justice for Black lives — one he had carried for so long. And I reflected on how blessed we are to heed his exhortation to carry on the fight against oppression. In an essay published in The New York Times upon his death, Lewis wrote, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself. ... Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.”
Lewis earned the title of Representative after a grueling, lifelong battle for human rights — fighting for the right to vote was truly his life’s work. As long as we allow “Jim Crow 2.0” — the new state laws that limit voting rights for Black Americans — we are only a “so-called democracy,” engaged in legalized oppression. That oppression, and the struggle to realize democracy by making voting accessible to everyone, is as old as this country. At the birth of the nation, only white male landowners could vote; about a century later, all white men were allowed to vote — even those who couldn’t afford property.
The 15th Amendment extended the right to vote to Black men after the Civil War, but exercising that right was its own challenge. While the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920, Black women were largely excluded — and Native American women weren’t able to vote until 1962. At every stage, states systematically disenfranchised BIPOC voters through tests, poll taxes, intimidation and violence, until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, one hundred years after the Civil War.
The Voting Rights Act was only introduced amid widespread and brutal attacks on voting rights activists. Lewis, severely beaten and gassed by Alabama state troopers as he marched for voting rights with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, carried the trauma of those attacks for the rest of his life. And that oppression doesn’t lie safely in the past. People who saw first-hand the visceral hate of white supremacy clinging to power are still among us (and so is white supremacy). Some of our grandparents, aunts and uncles remember full well what “whites only” looked like, and many know firsthand that that discrimination didn’t take place a long time ago or in a place far from here. And while we have seen progress, we as a nation have never fully realized democracy. This is still our fight.
Systems, laws and institutions are still being used to delegitimize the Black and Brown vote. We see it in the states passing legislation making it illegal to hand water to people waiting all day in lines to cast votes, the shuttering of thousands of polling places in nonwhite neighborhoods, cuts to early voting and mail-in ballots, and voter purges. In 48 states, legislators have introduced 389 bills with restrictive provisions affecting Black and Brown voters. Really?
We have the technology to clone humans, make robots and send billionaires on space vacations, but we can’t hammer out systems and laws that make voting convenient, accessible and accurate for all people? That’s no accident. And yet, through all of this oppression BIPOC people who believe real democracy is possible have risked their lives to secure their right to vote. We will keep up the fight. We will continue to push for the For the People Act, which would bring practical reforms to make voting easier and protect voters of color. We are privileged in Colorado to have a fair and efficient voting system that saw over 80 percent turnout of active voters in the last election. But as MLK said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The For the People Act must live. John Lewis’ fight — and the fight of generations before us — must go on.