Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better by making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance. By adding polling places and expanding early voting and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are somebody who’s working in a factory or you’re a single mom, who’s got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot. By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C., and in Puerto Rico. They’re Americans. By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering, so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around. And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.
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Now, even if we do all this, even if every bogus voter-suppression law is struck off the books today, we’ve got to be honest with ourselves that too many of us choose not to exercise the franchise. Too many of our citizens believe their vote won’t make a difference, or they buy into the cynicism that, by the way, is the central strategy of voter suppression, to make you discouraged, to stop believing in your own power. So, we’re also going to have to remember what John said. If you don’t do everything you can do to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You have to give it all you have. As long as young people are protesting in the streets hoping real change takes hold, I’m hopeful, but we can’t casually abandon them at the ballot box. Not when few elections have been as urgent on so many levels as this one. We can’t treat voting as an errand to run if we have some time. We have to treat it as the most important action we can take on behalf of democracy, and like John, we have to give it all we have.
I was proud that John Lewis was a friend of mine. I met him when I was in law school. He came to speak. And I went up and I said, “Mr. Lewis, you are one of my heroes. What inspired me more than anything as a young man was to see what you and Reverend Lawson and Bob Moses and Diane Nash and others did.” And he got that kind of “Aw shucks, thank you very much.” Next time I saw him, I’d been elected to the United States Senate. And I told him, “John, I’m here because of you.” And on Inauguration Day in 2008-2009, he was one of the first people I greeted and hugged on that stand. And I told him, “This is your day too.”
He was a good and kind and gentle man. And he believed in us. Even when we don’t believe in ourselves. And it’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was on Zoom. And I’m pretty sure neither he nor I set up the Zoom call because we didn’t know how to work it. It was a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists, who had been helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death. And afterward, I spoke to John privately. And he could not have been prouder to see this new generation of activists standing up for freedom and equality. A new generation that was intent on voting and protecting the right to vote. In some cases, a new generation running for political office. And I told him all those young people, John, of every race and every religion, from every background and gender and sexual orientation—John, those are your children. They learned from your example, even if they didn’t always know it. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they’d only heard about his courage through the history books.