I expected despair. I should have known better.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had just been eviscerated by the Supreme Court. So I called Georgia Rep. John Lewis, for whom passage of the Act was the defining event of a heroic life, thinking his discouragement would mirror mine.
Lewis started talking instead about how he would push Congress to “put teeth back in the Voting Rights Act.” To say I was skeptical is to understate. Congress? Obstructionist, tea party-clogged and more dysfunctional than the Kardashians? That Congress? But I couldn’t budge him toward despair. The work, he said, was already under way.
That was seven years ago, and the Voting Rights Act remains in rubble. But if you think the moral of the story is that Lewis, who died of pancreatic cancer Friday at the age of 80, was wrong, you miss the point. What he was, was stubborn. Indeed, few people could match him for plain doggedness in the struggle toward a righteous end.
Don’t confuse that with “patient,” which Lewis never was. Addressing the 1963 March on Washington, the then-23-year-old activist left no doubt on that score. Older civil-rights leaders had to talk him out of threatening to march through Dixie “the way Sherman did” but, even so, it was a speech of remarkable fire.
“How long can we be patient?” he cried. “We want our freedom, and we want it now!”
What Lewis had was not patience, but rather, the ability to keep coming back. After his skull was fractured marching for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, he returned to the bridge. After he and other Freedom Riders were beaten senseless at a bus station in Montgomery, he returned to the buses. After he ran for Congress and lost, he ran again and won.
And then there’s the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. For 15 years, Lewis repeatedly introduced a bill authorizing its construction only to see it blocked each time by Sen. Jesse Helms, the arch racist Republican. Helms retired in early 2003, and the bill passed that same year.
“We never gave up, we never gave in,” Lewis said. One is reminded of something he told voters when he ran for Congress that second time, squaring off against Julian Bond. Bond was a civil-rights legend in his own right, a handsome man with a mop of curly hair. “Vote for the tugboat,” said the squat, balding Lewis, “not the showboat.” And they did.
Bond died in 2015. Another hero of the Selma movement, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, died the same day Lewis did. Indeed, most of the giants of that era now are gone. And of all that we lose in losing them, perhaps the most important is that thing Lewis had in such abundance: stubborn resolve.
These last years have been hell on stubborn resolve. Trayvon was murdered, the Voting Rights Act was wrecked, the GOP openly embraced white supremacy, George Floyd died beneath Derek Chauvin’s knee. And one feels — I feel — increasingly estranged from a nation backsliding yet again from its lofty promises and boasts. But against that discouragement comes memory of the time I called Lewis expecting despair and found the tugboat already at work.
For the record, House Democrats passed a bill restoring the Voting Rights Act in December. It remains hung up in the Senate by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has dismissed charges of voter suppression as “nonsense.” So once again, the fight is before us. Once again, there’s a need to muster stubborn resolve. In that, John Lewis’ life was a master class. Sadly, he can no longer lead us.
But he can guide us, still.