Very few people deserve to be called a hero. But, under any criteria, Congressman John Lewis is one of the great American heroes in our country’s history.
His story is rightfully well known, especially given the focus on his life and monumental achievements since his death at 80 on July 17. The child of sharecroppers from rural Alabama, he became a civil rights activist when he was very young, beginning when he was a student in Nashville organizing sit-ins to integrate that city’s lunch counters. When he was 21, he became one of the original Freedom Riders.
Two years later, he helped found and then led the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lewis was the youngest member of the Civil Rights Movement’s “Big Six” and the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. He was brutally beaten and received a concussion in 1965 when he and other non-violent marchers were attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., at the beginning of the march to Montgomery.
He was willing to put his body behind his beliefs. He was savagely beaten many times and was seriously injured often for the “crime” of pushing for civil rights, especially the right to vote for African Americans. He was arrested 45 times. He espoused the action of getting into “good trouble.”
Deep, Intense and Enduring Connection to Mississippi
John Lewis’ connection to Mississippi in the struggle for civil rights was deep, intense and enduring. He was beaten as a Freedom Rider in Jackson and put in maximum security at Parchman, on the orders of Gov. Ross Barnett, for 37 days for refusing to comply with segregated restrooms. Barnett told prison officials to “break the spirit” of the Freedom Riders, and they did their best to carry out this instruction by giving them only underwear to wear and even removing their mattresses and toothbrushes.
At SNCC Lewis coordinated “Mississippi Freedom Summer” in 1963, urging college students from across the nation to come to Mississippi and register people to vote. During the second Freedom Summer in 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Neshoba County.
When Lewis became an activist, the odds of his becoming a 17-term congressman or even surviving to old age were very long. But he beat those odds and became the conscience not just of Congress but, in many ways, of America.
He and his actions have inspired me since I first became aware of Lewis when I was a teenager growing up in Ackerman. Later, as governor and as Navy secretary, it was my privilege to get to know him well and become friends. What struck me the most, besides the immense courage and faith that we could be better as a country and as individuals, was Lewis’ complete lack of bitterness and the abiding humility and kindness.
The U. S. Navy has a tradition of naming support ships after civilians whose values we cherish. Because of the mighty role he played in making our nation a better place, I named a ship the USNS John Lewis and the entire class of six ships the John Lewis class.
Still Barriers to Keep Black Mississippians from Voting
The overarching issue in all that John Lewis did was to make sure that all Americans were entitled to the most basic right in a democracy: the right to vote. After the U. S. Supreme Court in 2012 gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, many states, especially Mississippi, have moved rapidly to put up new barriers to voting by people of color.
Mississippi enacted a Voter ID law allegedly to protect against voter fraud even though such fraud has been proven time and again to be practically non-existent. Since 2012, the state has closed about one out of every 20 polling places, mostly in Black neighborhoods, usually with no justification or notice. The reason one Mississippi election commissioner gave was that sometimes closing polling places “just makes sense.”
The Mississippi Legislature refused to reestablish these polling places this past session even though there was federal money to offset at least part of the cost. The state doesn’t allow early voting or no-excuse absentee voting, and the process for getting an absentee ballot is one of the hardest in the country. The secretary of state even said that “the greatest vulnerability to our electoral system would be adopting policies such as universal vote-by-mail and no-excuse early voting.”
There are absolutely no reasons for these actions making it harder to vote except to re-establish the old Jim Crow system to try and keep as many African Americans as possible from voting. Actions like these seek to undo so much of the vital work of the Civil Rights Movement.
John Lewis spent his life trying to make sure all people had the right and ability to vote. Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and many more were murdered for trying to ensure this fundamental right. So much of the denial of this right and so much of the work and suffering to make this right a reality happened in Mississippi that the state bears a special burden to make this right easily available to all.
The elected officials of Mississippi should show just a small amount of the courage and decency of John Lewis and make voting simple and universal.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.