BIn February 2008, Congressman John Lewis got bad news for Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign.
It was true that a few months earlier, the civil rights heroine had supported her attempt to become the country’s first female president. But now, painfully and after not a little consideration, he had to take that approval back.
The reason? A young senator from Illinois for a term that had ignited that primary contest with his rhetoric and vision, and which his voters in Georgia’s 5th Congressional District supported overwhelmingly.
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“Something is happening in America,” Lewis said. “There is movement, there is spirit, there is enthusiasm in the hearts and minds of the American people that I haven’t seen in a long time – since Robert Kennedy’s candidacy.
Barack Obama thanked the often bloodied veteran of the civil rights struggle – who was beaten to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma – not just that day, but on several occasions for his support.
Among them was a speech in 2015 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma March, and the contributions of those who had passed and those who were still alive – including Amelia Boynton Robinson and Lewis himself.
“Their faith was called into question. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism is called into question, ”said Obama.
This week, Obama found a reason to once again congratulate the congressman and, in so doing, to grasp more firmly than ever the mantle of not just Lewis but his entire generation who fought for the most basic rights of the nation. US citizenship.
Giving a eulogy at the Atlanta funeral of Lewis, who died at the age of 80 after contracting pancreatic cancer, Obama said the congressman believed “in all of us there is a capacity for great courage”.
Yet while Obama’s speech was partly concerned with the now sepia-toned struggle of Lewis and colleagues such as Dr. Martin Luther King, it was also very much about the present and the struggle – here in the summer. 2020, 55 years after the transition. of the Voting Rights Act – to ensure that all who wish to vote can do so.
The same day, even as the New York Times published an essay Lewis wrote for publication on the day of his funeral, Obama’s successor Donald Trump threatened to delay the November election, claiming – contrary to all evidence – that the postal ballots were vulnerable to fraud.
“It will be a great embarrassment for the United States. Delay the elections until people can vote properly, safely and securely? Trump tweeted.
Critics of the president, who lags badly in the polls down to Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden, denounced his proposal, which would require an act of Congress, as fascist. Even Republicans condemned the idea, which Trump would later repeat during a White House press briefing.
Obama, 58, is visibly older than the senator who accepted Lewis’ endorsement 12 years ago. Yet when he spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, he did so with almost as much passion as he ever showed.
And when it comes to race, in particular, he seemed able to speak much more freely than he was as President.
“Bull Connor may be gone. But today we see with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of black Americans, ”he said.
“George Wallace may be gone. But we can see our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful protesters.
Obama didn’t mention Trump by name, but he didn’t need to.
“We may no longer have to guess the number of candies in a jar to vote. But even as we sit here, there are those in power who do their best to discourage people from voting – by closing polling stations, targeting minorities and students with restrictive identity laws, and by attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the postal service. as an election approaches that will depend on ballots in the mail so people don’t get sick.
For Democrats, the speech, delivered in one of the many states controlled by Republican governors who sought to limit voting rights, was a call to arms.
For the final 100 or so days of the 2020 presidential campaign, as Trump continues to undermine and delegitimize the election he fears losing, Democrats will organize – suing to open access to ballots by correspondence, trying to ensure there are adequate electoral agents and hoping that the postal services have sufficient resources.
For more than half a century, the nation has not been so seized with the issue of racial justice. Yet, Trump critics say, the franchise has never been so threatened.
In his posthumously published essay, Lewis paid homage to the American people who inspired him, saying that “millions of people motivated simply by human compassion have laid the burden of division.”
We now know how to fit these words into the New York Times, was touch and go. An editor revealed there was a scramble to complete the essay as Lewis’ health deteriorated and he even read the final rites before the final word approval was granted.
“When you see something wrong, you have to say something,” Lewis insisted in this essay. “You have to do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we have called the Beloved Community, a nation and a global society at peace with itself.