Activists gather nationwide to honor John Lewis 1 year after death, fight for voter protection laws

ByMaher Kawash WLS logo
Sunday, July 18, 2021
Vigils honor John Lewis, fight for voter protection laws
One law is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore sections of the Voting Rights Act that were weakened by the Supreme Court.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Thousands of people across the nation, including dozens in Chicago, gathered Saturday to not only remember the late John Lewis but to also keep pushing lawmakers to pass voter protection laws the congressman spent his life fighting for.

"Never again will states be able to decide when and under what conditions we can vote," said one speaker.

With statues honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shadowing over, activists came together to honor U.S. Rep. Lewis and everything he stood for.

"Just remembering somebody's life is not good enough ... it's picking up the mantle and doing what he did," Father Michael Pfleger said.

This candlelight vigil in Chicago was one of more than 100 happening nationwide, all in an effort to push lawmakers for three specific laws: The For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and DC statehood. Each aim to make it easier to vote and increase voter protections.

In the meantime, several states, like Texas and Arizona, are currently going back and forth on legislation that could make it harder for some to vote, which activists call an attack on democracy.

"John once said, 'Freedom is not a state; it is an act.' On this day of remembrance, let us continue to act," President Joe Biden said Saturday night in honor of Lewis.

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both marked the one-year anniversary of Lewis' death by urging Congress to honor the legacy of the civil rights icon by enacting laws to protect voting rights.

Biden said he often reflects on the last conversation he and his wife, Jill, had with Lewis, days before the Georgia congressman died.

RELATED: John Lewis, lion of civil rights and Congress, dies at 80

John Lewis, the lion of the civil rights movement with a long and celebrated career in Congress, has died. He was 80.

"Instead of answering our concerns for him, he asked us to remain focused on the unfinished work - his life's work - of healing and uniting this nation," Biden said in a statement.

The president said the unfinished work includes "building an economy that respects the dignity of working people with good jobs and good wages" and "ensuring equal justice under law is real in practice and not just a promise etched in stone."

"Perhaps most of all, it means continuing the cause that John was willing to give his life for: protecting the sacred right to vote," Biden said. "Not since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s have we seen such unrelenting attacks on voting rights and the integrity of our elections."

Biden said the attacks include the Jan. 6 insurrection and lies about the 2020 election.

The president said he supports both voting laws and is waiting on the Senate to pass them so he can sign.

However, some activists said they won't give up the fight until those laws are passed.

"Give us the rage of Malcolm, the dream of Martin and the inspiration and tenacity of John Lewis," Pfleger said.

Lewis was a high-profile civil rights activist before he won a Georgia congressional seat as a Democrat in 1986. Harris said in her own statement Saturday that he was "an American hero."

"Congressman Lewis fought tirelessly for our country's highest ideals: freedom and justice for all, and for the right of every American to make their voice heard at the ballot box," Harris said.

Lewis was 80 when he died months after announcing he had advanced pancreatic cancer. He was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, a group led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that had the greatest impact on the movement.

RELATED: President Biden delivers major speech on voting rights

Lewis was best known for leading some 600 protesters in the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Alabama state troopers beat Lewis and other activists who were marching for voting rights that day.

As a college student at American Baptist College and then Fisk University, Lewis helped desegregate public spaces in Nashville and pushed for racial justice across the South.

Nashville celebrated with events Friday and Saturday, renaming a large portion of Fifth Ave. to Rep. John Lewis Way. Among establishments lining the street is the Woolworth downtown building, where Lewis and other Black civil rights leaders defiantly sat at the segregated lunch counter that wouldn't serve them in 1960. Lewis was punched in the ribs and saw someone put out a cigarette on the back of another protester.

Hundreds marched down the street before arriving at Ryman Auditorium, for a celebration ceremony that included the Rev. James Lawson, author Jon Meacham and musicians Rodney Crowell and Darius Rucker.

In San Diego, senior U.S. lawmakers and members of Lewis' family gathered Saturday for the christening of a Navy ship named after Lewis.

"This ship will be a beacon to the world reminding all who see it of the persistence and courage of John Lewis," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Ca., said at the christening of the USNS John Lewis.

RELATED: EXPLAINER: What's next now that Republicans have blocked voting bill?

Lewis' nephew, Marcus Tyner, said the family was grateful for the honor, but said "what would please my uncle most" is if Congress passed the voting rights bill named after him.

The ship will be the first in the Navy's fleet of oilers designed to transfer fuel and water to vessels carrying out missions in the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean and beyond.

In her statement Saturday, Harris recalled crossing Alabama's Edmund Pettus Bridge with Lewis during a commemoration in 2020.

"The right to vote remains under attack in states across our nation," Harris said. "And the best way to honor Congressman Lewis' legacy is to carry on the fight - by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act as well as the For the People Act, and by helping eligible voters no matter where they live get registered and vote, and have their vote counted."

Democrats on Capitol Hill are pushing for a sweeping federal voting and elections bill that Senate Republicans have united to block, saying they think it intrudes on states' ability to conduct elections. Most Republicans have also dismissed a separate bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore sections of the Voting Rights Act that were weakened by the Supreme Court.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.