Honor John Lewis by passing voting rights bill, leading Democrat urges

By Guardian staff

House majority whip James Clyburn called on Sunday for both voting rights legislation and an infamous bridge in Alabama to be named after John Lewis.

“That’s the way to do it,” Clyburn told CNN’s State of the Union, discussing the legacy of the Atlanta congressman who died on Friday night at the age of 80.

Democrats who control the House of Representatives passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act in 2019, aiming to restore protections won in the civil rights era but undermined by a 2013 supreme court ruling. The bill has not been taken up by the Republican-held Senate.

“Words may be powerful, but deeds are lasting,” said Clyburn, from South Carolina, a friend of Lewis and an influential voice in Democratic circles. “It should be the John R Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.”

Clyburn’s call is not likely to be heard by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell or in the Trump White House. Democrats charge Republicans with determined efforts to suppress minority votes, efforts which have attained extra significance in an election year hit by a deadly pandemic.

Last month, Clyburn told the Guardian: “The only must is to win this campaign. That’s a must, not just for black people but for the country. Because I really believe if Joe Biden does not win this campaign, this country’s democracy will crumble.”

Lewis became famous during protests for civil rights reform in the 196os, alongside Martin Luther King Jr and other leaders.

In 1965, Lewis was badly beaten by state troopers during a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Footage of the violence helped change public opinion, leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the legislation undermined by the supreme court 48 years later.

“Edmund Pettus was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan,” Clyburn told NBC’s Meet the Press. “Take his name off that bridge and replace it with a good man, John Lewis, the personification of the goodness of America, rather than to honor someone who disrespected individual freedoms.”

Donald Trump was silent for 14 hours after Lewis’s death was announced, then tweeted a short message of condolence. He also ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at the White House and other federal buildings.

Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, told CNN Trump’s record in office undermined any attempt to honour Lewis.

“If you really want to honour the life of John Lewis, you don’t do things like gut the fair-housing laws,” she said. “You don’t sow the seeds of division.”

In an interview on Fox News Sunday, Trump equated Black Lives Matter with support for the Confederate flag and threatened to veto attempts to rename military bases named for Confederate generals.

On CBS’s Face the Nation a retired African American general, Colin Powell, said Lewis had been a “gentleman of two … forms, one tough as nails, one gentle. And he will always be remembered as an individual who did all he could for America.”

“There is a need for more John Lewises,” Powell added. “We got a lot of work to do.”

Powell served a Republican president, George W Bush, as secretary of state. But he has endorsed Biden this year, and he said he disagreed with Trump about Confederate symbols.

“We really hadn’t thought about it a few years ago,” he said. “But now with Black Lives Matter and all the issues that are before us, I think it is a good idea to rename the 10 bases in the United States army that are named after Confederates.”