On August 6, 1965, just 153 days after John Lewis was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. The televised beating of young demonstrators including Lewis, then age 25, was the impetus for President Lyndon Johnson to push the Voting Rights Act through Congress and get it on his desk for signature.
This landmark bill protects the right to vote, particularly for Black and brown voters, providing protection against states and other jurisdictions that seek to disenfranchise voters based on race. Congressman Lewis was among those present for the signing of the VRA, which marked a culmination of his work as Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Since 1965, the Voting Rights Act was extended or reauthorized 5 times — in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006 — with strong bipartisan support each time. John Lewis fought to preserve and expand the Voting Rights Act as a Member of Congress for 34 years. But Republicans, many who had previously supported the VRA, began to see it as a barrier to their objective of suppressing the votes of Americans who do not support their Party.
In 2013 in Shelby v. Holder, the conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Republicans, gutting Section 5 of the VRA, essentially removing the preclearance requirement that had stopped Republican legislators and secretaries of state in key states and jurisdictions from implementing racially biased changes to voting. The Supreme Court’s conclusion? That the coverage formula that determined which jurisdictions needed to preclear their voting changes was outdated, despite many recent examples of discrimination in voting.
Lewis condemned the ruling, saying, “the Supreme Court stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most effective pieces of legislation Congress has passed in the last 50 years… I disagree with the court that the history of discrimination is somehow irrelevant today. The record clearly demonstrates numerous attempts to impede voting rights still exist.”
Following the Shelby decision, over 850 polling places closed in previously protected jurisdictions and Republicans swept in a flurry of voter suppression laws that made it harder for people of color to vote — laws that had previously been prevented thanks to Congressman Lewis’s efforts.
Today, the same Republicans issuing statements and expressing sadness about the passing of Congressman Lewis are currently fighting to further dismantle his life’s work and gut Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting laws. The objective in the new case, Brnovich v. DNC, is clear: roll back the progress that Congressman Lewis achieved and bled for.
- Seven Republican United States Senators are fighting to dismantle the VRA in court.. They include: Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), James Lankford (R-OK), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), John Cornyn (R-TX), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT).
- Seventeen Republican State Attorneys General are fighting to dismantle the VRA in court. They include: Steve Marshall (AL), Kevin G. Clarkson (AK), Leslie Rutledge (AR), Christopher Carr (GA), Lawrence G. Wasden (ID), Aaron Negangard (IN-Deputy), Daniel Cameron (KY), Jeff Landry (LA), Lynn Fitch (MS), Douglass J. Peterson (NB), Dave Yost (OH), Mike Hunter (OK), Alan Wilson (SC), Jason Ravnsborg (SD), Herbert H. Slatery III (TN), Ken Paxton (TX), Patrick Morrisey (WV).
- Eight Republican state legislative leaders are fighting to dismantle the VRA in court. They include: Matt Simpson (AL), Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers (AZ), President of the Senate Karen Fann (AZ), David Ralson (GA), Ron Ryckman (KS), Paul Gazelka (MN), Elijah Haahr (MO), Brady Brammer (UT).
- Three Republican Secretaries of State are fighting to dismantle the VRA in court. They include: Michael Adams (KY), R. Kyle Ardoin (LA), John R. Ashcroft (MO).
- In John Lewis’s adopted home of Georgia, House Speaker David Ralston and Attorney General Chris Carr signed their names to amicus briefs to further erode Lewis’ life’s work. Weeks before, Ralston also saidexpanding vote by mail “will be extremely devastating to Republicans.”
As John Lewis said last year, “There are forces in this country that want to keep American citizens from having a rightful say in the future of our nation. That’s why the VRA was gutted.”
If Republicans want to honor Congressman Lewis’ legacy, the path is clear: halt their assault on voting rights, and commit to restoring and expanding the Voting Rights Act. Until then, their words ring hollow and their actions add to a bloody history of voter suppression in this country, and that will be their legacy.
Links to current, Republican efforts to further gut the Voting Rights Act: