John Lewis’ legacy

Since the George Floyd murder in May, the heinousness of which finally seems to have struck a major chord throughout the heart of White America, a prevailing question bandied about from our print media, many political speeches to the massed crowds of shouting demonstrators on our streets has been “Is White Racism a Public Health Crisis?”

Unfortunately the answer is a resounding yes, and has been for going on 400 years, with white nationalism and supremacist movements even more prevalent now in the Donald Trump era than before. And it is indeed systemic, meaning that white-on-black denigration and discrimination has been incorporated into entire collective groups of people scattered throughout our country, groups which include various police and other civil forces and departments, small businesses, giant corporations, school systems, etc., and that we are only fooling ourselves if we’re naïve enough to think that this evil went out back in the 1960-70s. That’s when African-Americans began getting more visible in TV and movies, hiring practices augmented by numerous new rules and point systems were devised to force white employers to allow Black employee numbers to improve, and our colleges began welcoming more Black students onto their campuses every September.

And America lost a towering champion, a symbol of the never-ending struggle that the entire race has been faced with since before the slavery era, with the passing of Georgia congressman John Lewis from pancreatic cancer last week. The 80-year-old icon was one of the important burgeoning sextet of 1960s figures who had the most import of jump-starting African-American rights in the face of the job denial, routine covered-up lynchings and rampant voter inequities that existed before their fightback, much of which obviously continues today. Along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jim Farmer and Roy Wilkins among others Lewis put his body and his livelihood on the line throughout his life, organizing rallies and utilizing his powerful speaking skills to galvanize his audiences into peaceful but meaningful action (“Good Trouble”, as he put it back then).

Images of this great man have been proliferating everywhere since his death last Friday. They range from him receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2011, to shots of his various arraignments during the 1960s when as a young man he participated in a plethora of sit-ins and street demonstrations in Mississippi and Georgia, and include the then 23-year-old speaking at the 1963 March on Washington. Unlike the white supremacists who made it necessary for Lewis, King and other heroes to have to “take it to the streets” to both demonstrate against and change the prevailing culture of hatred, most of the law enforcement treated the protesters like they were the criminals, with all the requisite violence they could muster.

This would be a good time to revisit the great American film “Selma”, the 2014 Oscar winner that concentrates on the March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march of predominately Black citizens from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama led by King. In real life Lewis marched then as well, and the then-25-year-old was rewarded for it by being beaten to a bloody pulp by riot police and white locals at the Edmund Pettus Bridge despite the fact that this was a peaceful demonstration. Portrayed in the film by Stephan James this is a superb chronicle (not to be confused as a documentary) that gets most of the history right, that history being the African-American struggle in that state to acquire and maintain their voting rights against the onerous laws and restrictions that the white government had in place. But most importantly it stands as an emotional, gripping piece of cinematic history that resonates even more now with Lewis’s death and the current “Black Lives Matter” movement that has been long-overdue and will hopefully reflect in the ballot box on Nov. 3.

Nikema Williams, Georgia’s first Black state chairwoman, has been nominated to take Lewis’ place on this November’s ballot. With a 58% Black votership Williams will easily keep the seat for the demographic where it will do the most good. And she knows the huge shoes she has to fill both figuratively and historically. “We need someone who is not afraid to put themselves on the line for their constituents in the same way that congressman Lewis taught us to”, Williams said upon acceptance of the nomination. “The lessons of getting into ‘good trouble’ have become more real than ever”.

There is widespread push for Trump to honor John Lewis by restoring President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted last year and that Lewis had fought for decades ago. The House voted overwhelmingly to restore the important legislation in December, which prevents individual states from enacting anti-Black voting statutes, which many of our red states have already seen happen. But a rewrite is currently languishing in the GOP-dominated Senate. There is no chance of any reestablishment happening now with the bigoted White House administration that America voted in 4 years ago. We can only hope that the change that John Lewis and his iconic peers of yesteryear gave their blood and sweat for will be enacted next year with what had better be the Joe Biden administration. This is the honor that John Lewis would have hoped for, and richly deserves.