John Lewis, Civil Rights Icon, Urges Americans to Vote

The Georgia congressman denounces voter suppression tactics.

Posted: 10/26/2012 06:31 PM EDT
John Lewis

For John Lewis, this is far from a typical presidential election.

Lewis, a congressman from Georgia and an icon of the civil rights movement, has been traveling throughout the country with a single-minded message: Voters must ignore any effort to dissuade them from going to the polls, no matter what the obstacles might be.

The recent rash of voter identification laws and voter suppression efforts, Lewis said, are nothing short of an effort to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement, particularly the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

“It’s been sad and troublesome to see forces, some 47 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, who want to take us back to another period,” Lewis said, in an interview with BET.com. 

“It is painful to see a deliberate and systematic attempt to make it difficult for citizens to participate in the democratic process,” Lewis said. “I want to make sure they don’t succeed. Not on my watch.”

The 72-year-old congressman has a long history in the civil rights movement. In 1961, he was on one of the first Freedom Riders and rode buses that were burned and attacked as they pressed for integration in interstate transportation. He was severely beaten during those rides. 

Three years later, Lewis played a major role in coordinating the Mississippi Freedom Project. In March 1965, he led the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march to petition for voting rights and was beaten by policemen who fractured his skull.

For months, Lewis has been harshly criticizing legislation pushed by Republican-led legislatures and governors in many states to adopt new voter identification laws. Those laws, Lewis and civil rights leaders say, were designed to limit the participation of Democratic-leaning constituencies, including African-American and Latino voters.

“I know people who were beaten and some killed for encouraging people to vote,” he said. “I gave a little blood myself on that bridge in Selma. I’m not going to see people deny others the right to vote.”

In recent weeks, he has carried that message to Ohio, Nevada and Florida. In the days before the election, Lewis said he will travel back to Florida, the scene of a number of controversial voter developments.

In many states, there are efforts to intimidate and harass voters in Black and Latino communities, Lewis said. “The billboards in Cleveland and other actions have had a chilling effect on people,” he added. “And there are a lot of intimidation efforts in the Latino community. We’re in an ongoing struggle and a real fight.”

When asked if he saw any positive aspects to the current voter suppression controversy, Lewis paused briefly before answering.

“The only redeeming part of this is that it has made many of us much more determined to work to see that people turn out and vote,” he said. “I am telling people that they should not let anyone keep them from voting. It’s a message I’ll continue to deliver over and over.”



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(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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