John Lewis seems to be everywhere these days.
The 73-year-old freedom struggle leader-turned-congressman from Georgia, in many ways, has been the civil rights conscience of Congress for a while now. But he has become particularly visible since the Supreme Court struck down a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a cause for which he was beaten severely on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Lewis is now leading the fight to reform the law to restore more Justice Department oversight. And according to the New York Times, Lewis has been able to use his stature to even find conservative Republican co-sponsors for such an endeavor.
Of course, the timing of all of this is not a coincidence. Lewis is also the sole surviving prominent speaker from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, to be commemorated later this month. As the 23-year-old coordinator of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was the youngest and most radical speaker that afternoon. While the Times glosses over his critical role in the march – a common oversight by the mainstream media – his speech was arguably the second-most important one delivered, after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.”
And in contrast to King’s optimism, Lewis delivered a tough indictment of President Kennedy’s recently introduced civil rights legislation, as well as both major parties on the issue. One of my favorite lines is: “The party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party?” The conservative wing of each party, led by white supremacists from the Sunbelt, often foiled the often weak but well-intentioned efforts of each party’s liberals.
Fifty years later, the parties have realigned quite a bit, but Lewis continues to offer tough words for anyone standing in the way of civil rights, such as after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Ultimately, I am pleased that Lewis is receiving so much attention these days. His story and message are important ones to remember when the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, at times, seems like a distant memory. Of course, it’s not. The issues activists such as Lewis – and the recently deceased Julius Chambers – engaged with remain just as important to our democracy now as they did then. So, as we prepare to commemorate the 1963 march, it’s important to recall the direct links between the claims then and now. Good jobs, real opportunity, and citizenship rights remain at the top of the freedom agenda. As Lewis said in 1963: “We cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”