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The Spirit of John Lewis: The passion and commitment of a voting rights icon call us to action

This Sunday will be the 56th anniversary of the day in 1965 when voting rights marchers led by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader John Lewis and Southern Christian Leadership Conference activist Hosea Williams were beaten by white lawmen wielding clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, as they attempted to march to the state capitol in Montgomery.

We all know what happened after “Bloody Sunday.” Thousands of activists poured into Selma, ultimately reaching the capitol steps on March 25 and hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “How Long? Not Long?” speech in defiance of the Confederate flag that flew overhead from the capitol dome. In the months that followed, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, changing the course of history and effectively ending the period of legalized racial discrimination known as Jim Crow.

And, of course, even though Lewis almost lost his life that day on the bridge – his skull fractured by a blow to the head – he would never waver in his commitment to making our country live up to its promise of equality. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia for the last 33 years of his life, he became known as the “conscience of the Congress.”

Now, in his honor, members of Congress are expected to reintroduce the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to reform an election system scarred by renewed efforts to suppress the vote.

We lost Lewis last July at the age of 80. But we have not lost his spirit. His passion for justice continues to inspire us.

Right now, we need Lewis’ spirit as much as we have since March 7, 1965, when he and other heroes put their lives on the line as they marched toward a phalanx of hostile state troopers and sheriff’s deputies on the Selma bridge.

Assault on democracy

It’s been nearly eight years since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and opened the floodgates to a tide of new state laws intended to roll back the rights for which Lewis and so many others risked everything.

And, unless we now mobilize to fight back, it could get worse. The lies about “voter fraud” in the 2020 election – led by Donald Trump – have spawned a slew of new proposals in many states to make voting even more difficult than it already is for communities that have long faced efforts to block their vote.

This assault on our democracy is why, two years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center formed a new department to join in the nationwide battle to protect voting rights. And the urgency of the moment is why I came to the SPLC shortly thereafter to lead the new team, named the Voting Rights Practice Group.

The SPLC has a much longer history of working to protect the voting rights of communities of color. In one of its most important early cases, the organization challenged an at-large election scheme that diluted the voting strength of Alabama’s Black citizens so much that by 1970 there were only two Black state legislators. Though Black people made up 25% of the state’s population, those two were the only Black legislators elected in the state since the institution of Jim Crow laws in the late 1800s. The court rulings in the consolidated cases Nixon v. Brewer and Sims v. Amos led to the election of 15 additional Black legislators in the 1974 election.

Today, as one of the few national civil rights organizations with strong physical ties in the Deep South, we’re dedicated to working hand in hand with community partners to expand and protect voting rights for all people, especially those who have been historically disenfranchised – particularly in the five states where we have offices.

Since we formed the new voting rights team:

  • We committed up to $30 million from our endowment to support the efforts of nonprofit, nonpartisan voter outreach organizations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana during the 2020 and 2022 election cycles.
  • We took a leading role in our five target states in training election protection volunteers and providing direct assistance to voters in advance of – and after – the 2020 general election to make sure they were able to cast a ballot and that their ballot was counted. The increased turnout highlighted the importance of continued investments in Southern communities.
  • We testified before a congressional panel in support of reauthorization of provisions in the Voting Rights Act that would require states with an ongoing history of discrimination or unduly burdening the right to vote to seek federal approval before implementing any voting changes. We continue to push for passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would reinstate the requirement (stricken by the Supreme Court) that new voting laws and procedures in jurisdictions with histories of discrimination must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. This requirement would block many regressive and suppressive voting bills in their tracks.
  • As the pandemic created unexpected challenges – in particular for communities of color, senior citizens and people with disabilities – we took court action in several states to loosen unnecessarily stringent restrictions to their vote-by-mail procedures.
  • We sued the state of Florida after it enacted a new law that thwarted the will of voters who in 2018 overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to some 1.4 million people with previous felony convictions. A federal court held that Florida’s “pay-to-vote” system – which expanded Amendment 4’s definition of  “completion of sentence” to include full satisfaction of all court fines, fees and costs – was essentially an unconstitutional poll tax. Unfortunately, the decision was reversed on appeal. The real victory, however, was that our clients mobilized their communities to increase voter registration and turnout in their home county of Duval and have led the charge on the modification of sentences to allow for people’s financial obligations to be reduced or eliminated so they no longer have that as a barrier to voting. We’re also fighting a similar battle to overturn Mississippi’s Jim Crow-era felony disenfranchisement law.

New wave of voter restriction proposals

The success of grassroots groups in mobilizing and educating voters in 2020 was exhilarating. We saw historic gains in races ranging from local sheriffs to the U.S. Senate – particularly in Deep South states like Georgia with long histories of voter disenfranchisement.

As a consequence, however, we’re seeing renewed efforts – by politicians who want to retain power – to decrease the number of people who are eligible to vote and the number of people who are able to register and vote.

In Georgia, we recently testified against a bill that would require people to include a photocopy of their ID with their absentee ballot application. In addition to there being no basis for this onerous requirement – because there was no evidence of systematic voter fraud during this past election cycle – the law itself creates serious concerns related to identify theft.

Our testimony highlighted the fact that 16.6% of Georgia’s voting-age citizens who lack access to a vehicle live more than 10 miles from a state-ID issuing office. In addition, almost all of these citizens live in rural areas where public transportation is unavailable and where high concentrations of people of color and people living in poverty reside.

This requirement would directly impact the results we saw during the 2020 election and the 2021 runoffs in Georgia. In those elections, 30% of Black voters cast ballots by mail; 36.7% of people of color voted by mail; and more than 17% of young Georgians voted by mail. Overall, Georgia had a 66% increase in total turnout for the 2020 general election and that included a 523% increase in mail-in ballots. 

In Alabama, a bill moving through the Legislature would ban curbside voting, an option that would greatly benefit people who are elderly or who have a disability.

Ensuring lasting success

We’re now facing a crucial period for voting rights.

After the battles of 2020, we must build on our gains with more in-depth organizing in rural communities where mobilizing efforts face serious hurdles because of the remoteness of the areas and their unique and ongoing experiences with voter intimidation. We’re now accepting applications for $10 million in grants available to grassroots organizations to help them build capacity and scale up voter outreach over the next two years.

At the same time, state legislatures and local governments will begin the redistricting process, which is even more prone to corruption given the lack of transparency with which many states approach their constitutional duty to redraw political lines. Although we and many partners are eager to get the redistricting process underway, we are also taking advantage of the U.S Census Bureau’s new September 2021 deadline for releasing population figures for county and local jurisdictions.

The additional time will allow for increased public education and the development of a legislative record to demonstrate the pros and cons of proposed district maps. In the meantime, we are closely scrutinizing current election schemes to determine whether races in places where the district lines are so skewed should proceed under the status quo.

Our mission is not only to ensure people have access to the ballot box, but also to leverage that political power into progressive and permanent policy changes that will have a meaningful impact on our communities.

We saw the protests last summer over George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others who have been killed at the hands of the police and have not received any real justice. That justice is meted out primarily by elected prosecutors and judges. Therefore, our work must be more expansive than just presidential elections or gubernatorial races.

Our lasting success will be in achieving as high a turnout as possible in all elections, especially the elections of those who have the most direct influence over our lives. The next step of that success is the realization of a more just and equitable society for all of us – as was envisioned by John Lewis and all the other heroes of the civil rights movement, including the many whose names we will never know.

Image at top: Religious and civil rights leaders, including John Lewis, center, and others hold hands in song and prayer before the start of the first Selma-to-Montgomery March in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. The violence that followed when police and state troopers attacked the marchers led to the event being called “Bloody Sunday.” (Photo by Charles Moore/Getty Images)