John Robert Lewis, rest in power

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

U.S. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis at the U.S. Capitol on June 28, 2017. Image: Mobilus In Mobili/Flickr

On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, 600 African Americans and their allies left Selma, Alabama, marching to Montgomery, demanding voting rights. While crossing Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were attacked by the Alabama State Police using nightsticks, electric cattle prods, dogs and tear gas. Images of the violence spread globally. John Lewis, the 25-year-old chairman of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, leading the march, was hospitalized with a concussion.

His commitment to the principles of justice, equality, and the power of nonviolent protest should serve as a north star as we navigate these difficult days. John Lewis, civil rights icon and 17-term Congress member, died July 17 of pancreatic cancer, aged 80.

Eight days after Bloody Sunday, the bravery of the marchers forced president Lyndon Johnson to address a joint session of Congress, imploring passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. "What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America," he said. "It is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice…and we shall overcome."

Martin Luther King, Jr. joined Lewis in Selma after Bloody Sunday, helping organize two more marches. Twenty-five thousand joined the marchers arriving in Montgomery on March 25. On August 6, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. It eliminated barriers to voter registration for people of colour, especially in Southern states. For close to a century, white Southerners enacted Jim Crow laws, forcing African Americans into an impoverished, segregated state of quasi-slavery.

Among the Jim Crow laws were many that made registering to vote for African Americans nearly impossible. Literacy tests, given only to Blacks, had questions like, "How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?" In Lowndes County, Alabama, in 1964, African Americans comprised 80 per cent of the population, yet not a single one of them was registered to vote. In Mississippi, African American voter registration was less than sevent per cent in 1964; in 1988 it was 75 per cent.

Close to half a century later, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, voting 5-4 in the Shelby, Alabama v. Holder decision, gutted the Voting Rights Act. Since then, more than 25 Republican-controlled states have passed an array of voter disenfranchisement laws. Ranging from requirements for voter identification, to massive purges of the voter rolls based on flawed data, to shuttering thousands of polling places and limiting early voting and absentee voting, these laws deter millions of people of colour from casting their ballots.

Add to these, two new threats to the 2020 election: the coronavirus pandemic and President Donald Trump himself. In-person voting has become a dangerous act, with COVID-19 deaths surging almost everywhere in the U.S., disproportionately affecting communities of colour. Voting by mail is the simple solution. Trump has attacked the practice, lying repeatedly that it enables voter fraud. It's no surprise that Trump refused to pay respect to the revered voting rights activist John Lewis, the first African American lawmaker to lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

Trump accelerates his march toward authoritarianism, deploying federal paramilitary agents to cities across the U.S. Despite the violence and arbitrary arrests Trump is unleashing, the Black Lives Matter movement continues, empowering a new, diverse generation of activists. In his last public appearance, John Lewis, wearing a mask, visited Black Lives Matter Plaza, close to the White House.

After his death, the House of Representatives renamed H.R. 4 the "John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020." It would undo the damage to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 wrought by the Supreme Court in 2013. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, while praising John Lewis before his casket in the Rotunda, refuses to allow the Senate to debate the bill.

John Lewis was the last living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington. Advisors at the time said his draft speech was too radical and would alienate Democrats. John Lewis originally wrote, "We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence…We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground -- nonviolently."

On the day of his funeral, the New York Times published an essay John Lewis wrote shortly before his death. "Democracy is not a state. It is an act…Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble."

Thank you for a lifetime of good trouble, necessary trouble.

John Robert Lewis, rest In power.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,300 stations. She is the co-author, with Denis Moynihan, of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller. This column originally appeared on Democracy Now!

Image: Mobilus In Mobili/Flickr


Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.