Biden, Harris: Protect voting rights to honor John Lewis

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Saturday both marked the one-year anniversary of U.S. Rep. John Lewis’s death by urging Congress to enact laws to protect voting rights. They said doing so would honor the legacy of the civil rights icon.

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

Congressman John Lewis is seen in his Atlanta office with two of his favorite items from his collection of memorabilia from his younger days as a civil rights activist in the 1960s. He is holding a Life Magazine cover picturing the famous Selma march in 1965. (He is in this photo at front of the line of marchers.) He is also holding a photo of the ‘Big Six’ civil rights leaders of the time to plan for the famous March on Washington. The men in the photo are L to R: John Lewis, Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King, James Farmer, and Roy Wilkins. In background photos (picture at left) of Dr. Martin Luther King with Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy and Lewis with Robert Kennedy (picture at right).” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

“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.

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.

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 of people marched 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 her statement Saturday, Harris recalled crossing the bridge with Lewis during a commemoration in 2020.

Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks at the start of a roundtable discussion on voting rights for people living with disabilities in her ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on July 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. “If we are truly a democracy, it means we have a representative government that reflects the experience and life of all the people in the country and I think we have a lot more work to do,” Harris said. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“The right to vote remains under attack in states across our nation,” Harris said. “And the best way to honor Congressman Lewis’s 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.

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