When John Lewis left us, editorials and columns paid tribute to his leadership, his courage, and his moral example. The praise was well deserved. A broader context helps understand his true contribution.
Lewis was born one of 10 children of a sharecropper in Troy, Alabama. He should be remembered now as one of the founding fathers of American democracy. When he led that famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, America was not yet a full democracy.
Yes, a brutal civil war had been fought to end the scourge of slavery. Nearly a century later, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board that segregation—legal apartheid—was a violation of the Constitution. Yet, in 1965, Blacks still had no right to vote. Their efforts to register and vote were routinely suppressed, often violently throughout the South. The same was true for Latinos and for Asian Americans. Young people could serve in the military but had no right to vote.
At Selma, Lewis walked with amazing courage into mounted police blocking the way. He was beaten badly in the police riot that followed, fearing for his very life. That scene outraged a nation.
Two weeks later, Lyndon Johnson pledged that “We shall overcome” and introduced what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into Congress. That Act outlawed discrimination in the right to vote by race, color, or language minority status. After that Act, young people received the right to vote. Women’s rights were expanded. Full American democracy was born.
Lewis was a true hero, but he did not act alone. As he would always teach, he found his place in the Civil Rights Movement that had been building when he was a young child. Thurgood Marshall spearheaded the legal strategy that ended with the Brown decision in the Supreme Court.
Rosa Parks sat on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and was arrested for ignoring White-only rules. Her courage and sacrifice drew Dr. Martin Luther King to the struggle in Montgomery. King’s organizing drew the attention of a young John Lewis in Troy, Alabama.
Lewis was a leader, but he was more workhorse than show horse. Show horses preen to win the blue ribbon and the applause of the crowd. Workhorses pull the wagon—and get the job done. With his quiet courage and his forceful moral vision, Lewis pulled people with him. Elected to Congress, he put Congress on his shoulders and tried by example and by organizing to make it better.
Lewis never stopped. He took joy in how far we had come. There was a direct line from that horrible Bloody Sunday in Selma to the election of an African American president. Yet he knew we still have a long way to go.
No longer do we face separate and unequal public facilities. Our right to vote is clear, even if efforts to suppress it continue. But the final chapter of the Civil Rights Movement—the effort to achieve economic justice—has been frustrated.
Today, economic inequality is as great as it was 60 years ago. We witness the structural racism that ends with African Americans three times more likely than Whites to be infected by the COVID pandemic and two times more likely to die. We witness the entrenched discrimination that ends in the police killing of George Floyd and many others.
That’s why the extraordinary, unprecedented outpouring of protests for Black lives is so important. John has left us, but millions have picked up the baton that he once carried—focused now on equal justice under the law, and on ending the structural racism that makes racial inequality a pre-existing condition.
May John’s example, his courage, his devotion to nonviolence and to a lifetime of making “good trouble,” help inform that struggle as it goes forward.
The democracy of 1787, where only White male landowners could vote, referencing Blacks as three-fifths human, without regard for working class Whites and women, was very incomplete, it has no export value in the world today. But the democracy of 1965, where Blacks can vote, White women can vote and serve on juries, and Latinos, Native Americans, and 18 year olds can vote on college campuses, that SELMA democracy is the envy of the world.
Let us cherish it.
Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH and commentary writer.