Rep. John Lewis: 'Make Some Noise' on New Voting Restrictions

The civil rights icon issues a call—"All of us should be up on our feet"—to protest partisan voting restrictions this election season.


And the major paused for about a minute, and he said, troopers advance. And you saw these men putting on their gas masks. They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks, bullwhips, tramping us with horses, releasing the teargas. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. My legs went from under me. I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death.

I had a concussion there at the bridge, and I don't recall 45 years later how we made it back across the bridge, crossing the Alabama River back to this little church that we left from. And when we returned to the church, the church was full to capacity. More than 2,000 people outside trying to get in to protect what had happened. And someone asked me to say something to the audience.

And I stood up and said, I don't understand it. I don't understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote. And the next thing I realized, I had been admitted to the Good Samaritan Hospital, a short distance away. There were 17 other people who had been hurt.

–Rep. John Lewis (D- Ga.), on NPR in 2010, marking the 45th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

If there is an American alive today who is well suited to evaluate the partisan push for new restrictive voting laws this election cycle, it is Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who put his skull where his heart and mind were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge all those years ago. But to merely read the words above doesn't do justice to what happened that day. Here's an interview the congressman did earlier this year with Stephen Colbert. In it you can hear, you can see, you can feel the profound impact the event had upon Rep. Lewis' life and, indeed, upon the life of the nation.

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When young John Lewis marched that day, he was marching for the rights of blacks to register to vote. And it would take only 142 days, from the march on March 17, 1965 to the passage of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. Now that federal law is under siege. The conservatives of the United States Supreme Court are poised to strike down one of its central provisions. And Republicans in states like Florida, Texas, and South Carolina have passed photo identification laws that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of registered voters who have long cast their ballots without incident. Republicans in other states, like Pennsylvania, have done likewise.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Ohio have moved to restrict early voting access, which has traditionally been used by minority voters. As with the photo ID requirements, the new restrictions were enacted under the guise of protecting elections from "voter fraud." But, as with the other restrictions, there is virtually no evidence of such fraud. And the impact of the new restrictions will have a disproportionate impact upon minority voters, many of whom don't have the time or the money or the means of transportation to obtain the required new forms of identification.

The Justice Department, which for now has the legal authority to block some state voting restrictions, has interceded in several Southern states. In other states, local civil rights groups have challenged the measures in court. This week, for example, a three-judge panel in federal court in Washington will hear a challenge to South Carolina's restrictive laws. And a decision in Texas v. Holder is expected as early as the end of the week. If the 2000 election was decided by judges after the voting was done, the 2012 election may be decided by judges before the voting begins.

With all that in mind, last week I asked Rep. Lewis for some context and perspective on the link between the civil right movement of a half century ago and today's voting rights movement. I wanted to know if the connection was valid and, if so, why so many of the voices which sounded so loudly in the 1960s have been so silent today. Is it because the texts of the new voting laws are "neutral"—technically applying their restrictions to whites and blacks alike? Or is it something more. It's a timely topic—with so many judges in so many states poised in the next few days and weeks to give their own answers.

Here is the interview.

I've made the argument (here at The Atlantic) that there are strong links between the aims of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and the aims of people today who are fighting against partisan restrictions on voting. How strong do you think that link really is?

The link is solid and very strong. The forces that fought against the goals and aims of the Civil Rights Movement in the '50s and '60s are very similar to the forces standing against voting rights today. Fifty years ago, they were primarily Southern segregated and racist groups who used brute force, arrests and violence to discourage people from participating. Today those forces are not just relegated to the American South, but they are operating throughout our country.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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