Originally published on PA Times.
On July 17, 2020, the United States lost a national treasure in Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon whose life and legacy represent the perils and the promise of democracy. Lewis is often heralded as a one of the most courageous heroes of the Civil Rights era. He fought against the manifestations of white supremacy that relegated Black Americans to second class citizens. He railed against the perils of the segregated south, voter suppression and inequalities of opportunity. Lewis was known as the conscience of the Congress, giving voice and perspective to the pain and suffering experienced by countless Black Americans who have been systematically denied fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution. Lewis lived his life fighting for the rights for all citizens, and was a drum major for change in the lives of Black Americans.
As a young 25-year-old, John Lewis was brutalized on the streets of Selma, AL on Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965). The pain and suffering Lewis endured, alongside more than 600 hundred others, was done fighting for the rights of Black Americans to exist in a society free of subjugation. Lewis’ life and legacy are a testament to the long suffering of Black Americans in their quest for rights guaranteed to Americans under the United States constitution.
Nearly sixty years after the brutality that happened on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, Black Americans have yet to achieve full citizenship with the same rights and protections under the law as other United States citizens. There is still work to do. The Voting Rights Act, most recently reauthorized in 2006 under George W. Bush, is set to expire in 2031 and voter suppression across the country continues to create barriers for full participation. Some of the tactics used to disenfranchise Black voters include: voter roll purges, polling place closures/consolidation, reduced voting hours, creation of at-large offices to dilute minority votes and the denial of voting rights after a felony conviction. The premise of each obstacle runs counter to all Lewis fought so hard to achieve. Lewis’ life is a poignant reminder that the struggle for democracy for Black Americans has not yet been realized.
Lewis cast a long shadow, mentoring and nurturing the minds and souls of so many of us who must now heed his call to get in good, necessary trouble. A powerful orator, Lewis was a drum major for change. He used his powerful platform as a 17 term Congressman to serve as a beacon of hope in working towards a society that is equitable and just. A society in which all people, without regard to their racial identity, can have access to the benefits of the democracy this country so deeply idolizes.
In living up to the hopes and dreams of John Lewis and the countless other civil rights activists who lost their lives in the struggle, we become agents of changes. We must accept the responsibility for ensuring that democracy includes each and every United States citizen. We must acknowledge the historic insults and hold ourselves accountable for ensuring they are never repeated. We must continue to educate our youth about the bloody catalogue of oppression and work without ceasing to protect Black lives.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the fierce urgency of now. Today, more than 50 years later, there is an extreme urgency of now! Now is the time for our nation’s leaders to address systemic racism! Now is the time for those who have been content with the status quo to speak up and advance the call for justice! Now is the time to reject the illusion of a level playing field and work to create equality of opportunity for all Black Americans.
We are at an important point in our nation’s history, where we have the opportunity to re-envision our society to fully achieve the ideals set forth by the founders. Similar to the courage and perseverance John Lewis displayed, each of us must be prepared to work collectively and summon the commitment to make this country better for every American. The role of the public sector is central to this cause as it is within our purview to advance racial and social equity. Creating a society where every American has equal opportunity and is treated equally under the law would be the greatest tribute we could make to the life and legacy of John Lewis.
The palpable pulse of the nation is calling out for justice—even in the midst of a pandemic.
The voices of the people will not be silenced.
John Lewis Quotes
“Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.”
“Our struggle is a struggle to redeem the soul of America.”