by Max Hess
My first encounter with John Lewis? When I moved from California to Georgia in the early 1990s. I had been living in Nancy Pelosi’s district and didn’t know to whose district I had moved. The LA uprising, following the police brutality against Rodney King, sparked a sympathy March here in Atlanta.
I remember watching TV, and this man comes on who had absolute moral clarity about the righteousness of the marchers’ cause and all the circumstances around the Rodney King matter. And he was also equally clear that we cannot be scaring shopkeepers along the march route, even if we do have grievances. Again, he had absolute clarity on that, and it was coming out of nonviolence principles. I remember asking people, “Who is that man?” They said, “Well, that’s your Representative in Congress.”
I first met John Lewis at a fundraiser for Bill Campbell, later mayor of Atlanta, who spoke at the memorial service for Lewis. People wanted to write checks to John Lewis, but he declined, explaining that he had no challengers at that time and urging people to give help to candidates who needed it.
Of course, John Lewis was perhaps most known for the beating he took at the Edmund Pettus Bridge when trying to march from Selma to Montgomery. That was, of course, all about the right to vote, and it made the irrefutable moral argument that compelled Congress and President Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It had last been reauthorized in 1992, but only for 15 years and was set to expire.
On a totally separate track, I joined a challenge to the voter ID requirement here in Georgia. One of our members of Congress, then soon to be elected Governor, called the two plaintiffs: “ghetto grandmothers.” Congressmember Deal apparently did not realize that I had replaced one of the two older Black women plaintiffs who did not have government-issued photo ID and couldn’t get it in time for the election, just as I did not have any and could not get it in time for the election.
On that day, I became an honorary ghetto grandmother. I wear it as a badge of honor. And shame on Deal for even coming up with that phrase. (The State of Georgia appointed Mark Cohen as special attorney general to defend the law, but our legal team—former Governor Roy Barnes and now State Senator Jen Jordan–prevailed and forced Georgia to revert to the previous requirement of one of 17 forms of identification. Citing the court’s injunction in our favor, I was allowed to vote with my utility bill, which matched my voter registration.)
At that time, the US was considering a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And John Lewis had been charged with getting it passed through Congress and persuading President Bush not to veto. There was a special session of Congress for the final push, as I recall, maybe on a Saturday, and I was watching on C-Span. I couldn’t believe my ears and eyes when John Lewis started to describe my case and cited it as a reason why we had to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965!
John Lewis had turned Deal’s put-down into something worthy. And John Lewis succeeded in getting the Act reauthorized.
It is often said that John Lewis, as a member of Congress, found innovative ways, beyond legislation, to be a representative of the People. Lewis applied that spirit when President Obama first became president. Normally, when making judicial and US attorney appointments in a particular State, a president will rely upon a senator of the same party to make suggestions. That wasn’t possible in Georgia because Georgia hasn’t had Democratic senators for a while now. So John Lewis, though not a US senator, stepped up and created a process by which people could be considered for a recommendation to President Obama. For a short while, it worked, and that is part of how Sally Yates was appointed US attorney. Realizing that they had been outmaneuvered by John Lewis, the Republican Senators of Georgia began to reject all recommendations and to make their own. One of them was Mark Cohen who had defended the voter ID law in Georgia.
It was rumored that John Lewis had an objection to the appointment of Sally Yates. Yates, as assistant US attorney, had prosecuted Mayor Campbell on charges of bribery and racketeering, etc. When the jury acquitted Mayor Campbell of all the main charges and convicted only on a minor charge of tax evasion, Yates nonetheless took a maximalist position on sentencing with respect to this one minor conviction. It was rumored that John Lewis objected to this approach to criminal prosecution, especially after the jury had spoken so emphatically on the main charges.
The last time I saw John Lewis was at a marriage equality event. Georgia, like many other States, was opposing same-gender, or same-sex, marriage. But, again, Lewis always had absolute moral clarity. Lewis invoked Dr. King, and reminded that Dr. King had said, about so-called anti-miscegenation laws (Georgia, ever in defiant mode, being the last State in the Union to let go of its law and well after the Loving case had been handed down): that our big social constructs for race don’t marry. Individuals fall in love and marry. John Lewis applied the same thinking to marriage. Our big gender/sex categories don’t marry. Again, individuals fall in love and marry. On this issue, as for so many, John Lewis seems to have been born evolved.
And, yes, I did get a chance to introduce myself to John Lewis at the event, and we had a good chat about how we had been working in tandem on voting rights.