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.

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.

The documented incidences of voter fraud are very rare, yet throughout the country, forces have mobilized in over 30 states to stop it. These efforts are very partisan. They are not using overt violence and harassment, but subtle, more sophisticated devices to discourage and prevent people from participating in the electoral process.

How much of these new laws are based upon the fear of permitting minority votes to determine the coming election?

It is not outlandish to conclude that these new laws are based on the simple objective of blocking minorities from casting a vote that will determine the outcome of elections. Some appointed and elected officials have stated these aims and have made it very clear that they are working to disenfranchise minority voters in this election. I truly believe there is a deliberate and systematic attempt to keep people from participating because some fear the results of the election would be very different than they desire if they allow full, free, unfettered participation, even though those efforts may violate voting rights law and demonstrate blatant disregard for the responsibilities of state and local elections officials.

On early voting, what's your reaction when you read about a Republican election official in Ohio, Doug Priesse, who is also chair of his county's Republican Party, who wrote this weekend: "I guess I really feel we shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban—read African American—voter-turnout machine. Let's be fair and reasonable."

I think that it is a shame and a disgrace. The government, both state and federal, has a duty to be reasonable and accommodating. In the past the great majority of minority voters, in Ohio and other places that means African American voters, cast a large percentage of their votes during the early voting process. To make it hard, to make it difficult almost impossible for people to cast a vote is not in keeping with the democratic process. Someone once said, "Man is not made for the law; law is made for man". Customs, traditions, laws should be flexible, within good reason, if that is what it takes to make our democracy work. We should be creative, and we should accommodate the needs of every community to open up the democratic process. We should make it easy and accessible for every citizen to participate.

On photo ID, what's your reaction when you read about the Pennsylvania House Majority Leader, a Republican named  Mike Turzai, who said in June that the state's new restrictive voting laws were "gonna allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."

I was astonished, almost shocked to hear that the Pennsylvania House Majority Leader would be so direct and bold as to admit that the purpose of these laws is to steer the election toward Gov. Romney. It is unbelievable. But it verifies what many of us have been saying about the voter ID laws from the beginning. In so many instances, that is what the rush to pass photo ID laws has been all about. It has been targeted at limiting the number of minority, seniors, disabled and rural voters from casting a vote. In the state of Pennsylvania , these limitations could affect nearly one million voters. I think Turzai just spoke what he felt and in doing so he probably told the unsavory truth.

It seems the national media by and large is not covering with much passion or consistency the partisan effort to restrict voting rights. Do you agree with that assessment?

I do agree with your assessment that the national media is not covering or reporting with much passion or any degree of consistency this deliberate, systematic, partisan effort to block participation in the democratic process. It is a shame. It is a disgrace that the truth and the urgency of this issue have not been made clear through solid reporting. These violations are an affront to all the people who were beaten, struggled and died for the right to vote. I knew some of those people. Some of them were journalists. And when reporters fail to tell the story, the whole story, about how these restrictive voting procedures can impact the outcome of this election, the fourth estate is not serving a central function in our democracy. The press is supposed to serve as a check on government. It has not in this case.

The Civil Rights movement in part was about securing the right to vote. Today, the fight is over the means of voting. Are you surprised or disappointed that there isn't more public protest or condemnation over what's happening?

I am surprised, shocked and deeply disappointed that there isn't more public protest or condemnation of what has happened in America. People are not being beaten and trampled by horses or tear gassed, people are not being shot and killed. The obstructions are not as obvious, but the effect of what state legislatures and party officials are doing will damage the integrity of our political process for generations to come, if it is not corrected. As a people and as a nation, we are too quiet. All of us should be up on our feet. There should be public outcry. There should be a sense of righteous indignation over what is happening during this election season. We should not just roll over and allow it to happen. Lawyers, political scientists, scholars, activists, teachers, ministers, seniors, farmers and ordinary citizens should be speaking up, speaking out and making some noise about what is happening in America.