On July 17, 2020, America lost one of its greatest treasures: U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a man of great strength, courage, sacrifice and love. He dedicated his life to fighting for fairness, justice and equality. He was an icon of the civil rights struggle. A cornerstone of his legacy was his fight for voting rights.
John Lewis and Hosea Williams led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. After crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the marchers were attacked by state troopers. Lewis was severely beaten, suffering a fractured skull. The attacks were televised throughout the nation. “Bloody Sunday,” as the day was labeled, accelerated the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Lewis was the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. During his memorial, parts of his 2014 commencement address at Emory University were played. As a person of color, those words reside in my heart, but they also should inspire each of us to do better and be better:
“On a summer night, June 21, 1964, three young men that I know, two white, one African American, Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman, and James Chaney, went out to investigate the burning of an African American church that was used for a voter registration workshop. These three young men, detained by the sheriff, taken to jail, taken out of jail, turned over to the Klan, where they were beaten, shot, and killed … trying to help all citizens become participants in a democratic process. As young people, you must understand there are forces that want to take us back to another period. You must say we are not going back. We have made too much progress. And we’re going forward.
“There may be some setbacks … but you must never ever give up or give in. You must keep the faith and keep your eyes on the prize. That is your calling, that is your mission, that is your moral obligation, that is your mandate. Get out there and do it. Get in the way.
“In the final analysis, we all must learn to live together. As brothers and sisters, we all live in the same house, and it doesn’t matter if we are Black or White, Latino, Asian American or Native American. It doesn’t matter if you are straight or gay. We are one people, one family, we all live in the same house. Be bold, be courageous, stand up, speak up, speak out and find a way to create the beloved community, the beloved world, the world of peace, a world that recognizes the dignity of all humankind. Never become bitter, never become hostile, never hate, live in peace, we are one, one people and one love.”
I had the privilege to speak with John Lewis 10 years ago. He graciously welcomed me into his office. He spoke passionately about the need to keep up the fight. In Lewis’s honor and in honor of our country, please, at this important time, request an absentee ballot so you, safely, can vote.
Dennis Patterson is a community activist and former president of the African American Alliance.