Crossing the bridge with John Lewis

This week in North Philly Notes, José E. Velázquez, coeditor of the forthcoming Revolution around the Cornerremembers the late John Lewis. 

On July 17, 2020, we mourned one of America’s greatest heroes, “the conscience of the nation,” civil rights leader and Congressman, John Lewis. His well-deserved six-day memorial services included being the first African-American to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. The entire country relived that fateful Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965 where civil rights marchers gathered to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery, in a campaign for the right to vote.

It has been 55 years since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and some may have forgotten how under the mantle of “states rights,” local governments repressed the right to vote of African-American men granted by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (1870), and to African American women by the 19th amendment (1920). After the “Compromise of 1877,” southern Confederates who lost the Civil War ended “Black Reconstruction,” “took back the South,” and regained political power. Under the U.S. federal system, the administration of elections is a power reserved by state governments, who subsequently instituted a system of American apartheid and Jim Crow laws aimed at limiting African American voting rights. These included outlandish literacy tests to register to vote, poll taxes, and outright physical repression. In what became known as “grandfather clauses,” poor and uneducated whites were exempted if their descendants voted before 1867.

This was the reality during what became one of the most important non-violent civil disobedience battles of the civil rights movement: the Selma to Montgomery march. The strategy of massive, non-violent civil disobedience sought to rally forces against a superior power, by awakening the conscience of the nation, and forcing the Federal Government to intervene against the repressive forces of state governments. It

also aimed at overcoming real fears in the African American communities, produced by decades of subjugation, to confront the system head on. This is exactly what happened on that Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965 when Alabama State Police blocked marchers from crossing the Pettus Bridge, attacking them with horses, tear gas, and billy clubs as the protestors knelt in prayer. John Lewis, at the time a leader of the Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), at the front of the march had his skull fractured and his life almost extinguished. Despite being severely injured, he returned to lead the other attempts to march.

With the advent of television, the entire world saw this vicious attack on marchers who were only asking for the right to vote, shaking the conscience of the nation. In the process, after a second attempted march on March 9th, halted by a temporary court injunction, a white minister, James Reeb, was killed that night by a Ku Klux Klan mob, adding to the country’s indignation. On March 21, 1965, under pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers in their third attempt. Hundreds of people came from throughout the nation to join the march, this time with National Guard protection. The close to 8,000 marchers crossed the bridge and arrived at the Alabama State Capital on March 25th, their numbers swelling to over 25,000.

Revolution Around the Corner_smOn August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, allowing for federal intervention to protect the constitutional right to vote, and beginning the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, poll taxes, and other regulations which made registering and voting nearly impossible for African-Americans. Just as the 1964 Civil Rights Act began the end of de jure segregation and expanded the rights of women, and other people of color, including Puerto Ricans, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did the same throughout the country. For decades, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, confronted English literacy tests and physical confrontations aimed at limiting their right to vote. The 1965 act was subsequently amended to include protections for non-English speaking voters. In 1970, in Newark, NJ when the Black and Puerto Rican Convention aimed to elect the city’s first African-American mayor, they were met with armed white resistance, necessitating the intervention of federal observers mandated by the Voting Rights Act.

For me the spirit of John Lewis was personal. After the assassination of Malcolm X in February 21, 1965, my first political experience at 13 years old was as a member of the SNCC Black Youth Congress, organized in El Barrio (Spanish Harlem). A

group of young African-Americans and Puerto Ricans met at the East River Projects, in a study group led by SNCC leaders, Fred Meely and Phil Hutchinson. SNCC was considered to be the radical wing of the civil rights movement, and one its leaders, Stokely Carmichael became the voice of a new “Black Power” movement. I must confess that at the time, maybe not being from the South, or because of youth and legitimate anger, our group did not look favorably at the strategy of non-violence. But historical time has demonstrated the power of massive non-violent civil disobedience to bring down even the most powerful governments or empires. I am proud, like Sammy Davis, Jr., Roberto Clemente, José Ferrer Canales, Gilberto Gerena Valentín, and many other Puerto Ricans, to have walked hand-in-hand with this movement.

What is the legacy of John Lewis as the nation today honors those who were considered radicals in the past? John Lewis, the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, who was constantly arrested and beaten as he led protest movements, talked about starting “good trouble” and exercising the right to vote until his last days. Yet today many do not exercise this simple effort, preferring not to vote, while allowing a wealthy minority to run the country.

Today, the Voting Rights Act is endangered, as certain provisions require reauthorization, and some state governments have renewed their attempt to repress voting rights. In Puerto Rico, the process to register to vote is still much more difficult than in many other jurisdictions. Those who took the streets in the summer of 2019 in Puerto Rico, may find their activism betrayed if they don’t register to vote, and vote for real change. The same holds true to those who have joined the massive Black Lives Matter protests in the streets of the United States. In November 2020, we face one of the most important and decisive elections in our lifetime. What would John Lewis say? Make “good trouble,” and vote out those who reject his legacy.

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