By H. Harrison Coleman
On July 17, 2020, famed civil rights activist John Lewis died. Lewis, who was 80 at the time of his passing, was one of the men who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. His actions, which included planning the famous March on Washington, being one of the original Freedom Riders and engaging in countless marches all across the segregated South, resulted in the passage of the famous Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965. Afterwards, Lewis became Congressman Lewis, representing Georgia’s 5th district for 33 years, up until his death.
Lewis has certainly not gone unmissed. Legislators in Georgia are arranging for a statue of the late congressman to be put in the U.S. Capitol (every state is allowed to place two statues in the Capitol rotunda, and Lewis would replace Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy). Lewis is also among the nominees of people who might be placed in the Garden of American Heroes, a statue park set to open in 2026.
Additionally, a small section of Freedom Park in Atlanta will be set aside to honor the late congressman, with hundreds of flowers, dogwood trees, magnolias and redbuds. Freedom Park, which has become known for its beautiful and inspiring public art, is also home to The Bridge, a statue portraying Lewis’s famous crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, during Bloody Sunday in 1965. The sculpture is located at the appropriately named John Lewis Plaza.
Lewis may be dead, but the things he stood and fought for certainly are not. Now, in 2021, his message of equality is not only more needed, they are more realized than ever. On January 5, Lewis’s native Georgia made history: in a double runoff, Georgia elected its first Black senator, Democrat Raphael Warnock.
Senator Warnock, before entering politics, served as the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta. Warnock is the first Black senator to represent Georgia and the first from the Deep South since Reconstruction ended, and only the eleventh Black senator ever elected to the Senate. Warnock was one of the people who spoke at Lewis’s funeral, and it’s safe to say his memory was not far from Warnock’s mind on election night, as well as many other members of Congress: Warnock’s win sparked a flurry of congressmembers who paid tribute to the deceased activist.
Equally of merit was the other Democrat who won on that January night: Jon Ossoff became the first Jewish person to win a Senate race in the Deep South since Benjamin Jonas, who was elected in Louisiana in 1853, and the first Jewish person to represent Georgia in the Senate. Ossoff, like Warnock, has extensive connections to the late, great Lewis; Ossoff wrote Lewis a letter when he was sixteen and found himself with a summer job in the esteemed congressman’s office. In fact, Ossoff credits Lewis with inspiring him to get into politics.
The legacy of the Civil Rights leader extends even further into the modern year than these monumental races, however. In 2013, the Supreme Court case Shelby County vs. Holder cut out many provisions in the famous Voting Rights Act Lewis had fought so hard to create. The cuts, which Chief Justice John Roberts argued were no longer relevant, allowed states to resume horrifically discriminatory practices, such as changing voting procedures on a whim with absolutely no oversight.
As one of his final actions as a congressman, Lewis introduced through his friend and fellow Southern Democrat Terri Sewell (D-AL) a new bill that would restore the voting rights act to its former glory—with some parts changed to render it immune from the charges Roberts had brought against it. It passed through the House but was never even brought to a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. The bill, which ended up being renamed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (JLVRA), became a rallying cry for the campaigns of Ossoff and Warnock.
All throughout their respective campaigns, both of Georgia’s new senators campaigned on restoring the Voting Rights Act through passing the JLVRA. Warnock made it a focal point of his campaign, as did Ossoff. With Democrats now controlling the Senate, passage of the JLVRA since folded into the 2021 For the People Act seems much more likely.
Additionally, Lewis’s successor to his House seat, Nikema Williams, has made passing the act a top priority for her campaign. The activist and former Democratic Party of Georgia chair has huge shoes to fill, but the Atlantan Democrat has already proved herself to be a worthy successor to the giant whose shoulders she stands upon.
It’s no question that the United States, and the world as a whole, is worse off with Lewis gone from it. But that’s no excuse not to get into a little good trouble, and Lewis’s students have obviously taken that to heart.