Speaking at the Democratic National Convention Thursday afternoon, Representative John Lewis (D-GA) told the story of being one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. He talked about being beaten as they stood up against unjust laws, and he talked about how wrong it is that the Republicans are deliberately trying to obstruct the right to vote for certain segments of the population, and reminded us all of the lives lost in the fight for the right to vote.
Lewis’ entire speech resonated with restrained dignity, peaceful intentions, and non-violent love for freedom in the face of violent oppression. It was Mr. Lewis who was recently called a “ni**er” by Tea Partiers protesting the passage of the Affordable Care Act as he marched with other Democrats, including Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) who was spat upon by the protesters. These are not isolated incidents; rather, these are indications of where the Republican Party wants to take this country.
The proud fighter ended with a stirring, profound call to march to the polls, “And we have come too far together to ever turn back. So we must not be silent. We must stand up, speak up and speak out. We must march to the polls like never before. We must come together and exercise our sacred right.”
Representative Lewis’ full remarks are too profound and important to edit. Here they are in full (emphasis mine):
I first came to this city in 1961, the year Barack Obama was born. I was one of the 13 original “Freedom Riders.” We were on a bus ride from Washington to New Orleans trying to test a recent Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination on buses crossing state lines and in the stations that served them. Here in Charlotte, a young African-American rider got off the bus and tried to get a shoe shine in a so-called white waiting room. He was arrested and taken to jail.
On that same day, we continued on to Rock Hill, South Carolina, about 25 miles. From here, when my seatmate, Albert Bigelow, and I tried to enter a white waiting room, we were met by an angry mob that beat us and left us lying in a pool of blood. Some police officers came up and asked us whether we wanted to press charges. We said, “No, we come in peace, love and nonviolence.” We said our struggle was not against individuals, but against unjust laws and customs. Our goal was true freedom for every American.
Since then, America has made a lot of progress. We are a different society than we were in 1961. And in 2008, we showed the world the true promise of America when we elected President Barack Obama. A few years ago, a man from Rock Hill, inspired by President Obama’s election, decided to come forward. He came to my office in Washington and said, “I am one of the people who beat you. I want to apologize. Will you forgive me?” I said, “I accept your apology.” He started crying. He gave me a hug. I hugged him back, and we both started crying. This man and I don’t want to go back; we want to move forward.
Brothers and sisters, do you want to go back? Or do you want to keep America moving forward? My dear friends, your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union. Not too long ago, people stood in unmovable lines. They had to pass a so-called literacy test, pay a poll tax. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. On another occasion, one was asked to count the jelly beans in a jar—all to keep them from casting their ballots.
Today it is unbelievable that there are Republican officials still trying to stop some people from voting. They are changing the rules, cutting polling hours and imposing requirements intended to suppress the vote. The Republican leader in the Pennsylvania House even bragged that his state’s new voter ID law is “gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state.” That’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not just.
And similar efforts have been made in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina. I’ve seen this before. I’ve lived this before. Too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.
And we have come too far together to ever turn back. So we must not be silent. We must stand up, speak up and speak out. We must march to the polls like never before. We must come together and exercise our sacred right. And together, on November 6, we will re-elect the man who will lead America forward: President Barack Obama.
Representative Lewis’ story is not empty rhetoric. It’s history. This is from where we have traveled. How far are we from going back to those ugly days?
What kind of political party determines to deliberately obstruct voting rights for minorities, and still calls themselves patriots? In Ohio, the Secretary of State was ordered to restore early voting by a federal court. He refused, saying he would wait for an appeal sure to go his way. The court ordered him to appear next week. Surely he will face possible contempt charges if he continues ignoring the law.
The Voting Rights Act was put into place for a reason. In Texas, as in several other states, the Republicans’ changes to voting laws have been found to violate the Voting Rights Act. Republicans are not ashamed of this, but instead bragging about how their changes to the law will give a state to Romney.
The bold cowardice of people in power abusing their positions in order to win more power at the expense of the rights guaranteed to American citizens should be horrifying. But instead, it’s become the order of the day.
Listening to John Lewis tell his story with such dignity, courage and obvious love for his brothers and sisters who have not always loved him in return should shame those engaging in the craven abuse of voting rights, but I know it won’t.
And that’s why I cried. Because these battles should be over. Because I am deeply ashamed of this part of our great country and because in the face of John Lewis’ story, I can find no salvation in going backward. I can’t wrap my mind around taking away the right to vote from any American, much less based on something as obscure and trivial as the color of their skin.
Something about John Lewis’ dedication to love in the face of hate broke me. What did we do to deserve such grace?
Mr. Lewis reminds us that we must put our feelings into action peacefully, by marching together to the polls on November 6.
And when I do, I will be casting my ballot against the assault on American citizens’ rights. I would like the choice to be less obvious, but in these times, to vote Republican is to vote for voter suppression of minorities.
That is not right and it must not be allowed to stand. We must all stand together in solidarity for our fellow countrymen and women, and we must insist that we are going forward, not backward.
Representative Lewis’ comments from prepared text courtesy of the DNC.