It has been a long and tumultuous year since America’s loss of the legendary John Lewis. A year when we saw the birth of hope for a new era under new national leadership. A year when we experienced the violent and literal assault on our democratic institutions and the legitimacy of our elections. And a year that brings us face to face with a harsh fact: that Lewis’ lifelong pursuit of equal access to the ballot for Black and brown Americans is being systematically dismantled by many who paid tribute to his legacy just 12 short months ago.
To honor John Lewis, we must turn back this rising tide of voter suppression.
In state after state, Republican legislatures are passing laws to suppress votes. A Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees has further undermined the Voting Rights Act. And through it all, the hypocrisy of Republican politicians when it comes to Black voters has been on full display.
We see this when Republicans give performative support for the establishment of a Juneteenth holiday, but complain that fuller access to the ballot will spoil the “purity” of elections. We see it when corporations speak out against voter suppression as they did in Texas and Georgia, and the threats of retaliatory tax hikes come thick and fast from Republicans — the erstwhile party of low corporate taxes and business deregulation.
We see it in the revelations of secret talks between Republican operatives and conservative groups including the Koch megadonor network reported in March, in which they admitted that many parts of the For the People Act are wildly popular with their own voters, so it’s useless to change public opinion against it. Better to just kill it, which Senate Republicans sought to do with a filibuster that so far has prevented so much as a debate on the bill.
This is conniving and concealment with one aim: to stop Black and brown Americans from voting. We desperately need the leadership of the Biden-Harris administration to ensure that the plot will not succeed.
It was encouraging to see Vice President Kamala Harris announce that the Democratic National Committee will invest in voter registration and turnout. It was also heartening to see that the Justice Department is taking legal action against voter suppression in Georgia. But this is not enough.
President Joe Biden, who called on Americans to rally behind the issue in a speech Tuesday in Philadelphia, has declared voting rights “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.” That means we must pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. And to do that, we must remove the Senate filibuster as a barrier to the legislation. The president needs to say so, and he needs to exert all his influence — publicly and behind the scenes — to ensure the Senate lets nothing stand in the way of protecting our democracy.
If Republicans continue to avoid negotiating in good faith, reluctant Democratic and Republican senators must conclude that the filibuster today is not just a tool to preserve Senate comity by giving a voice to the minority party. It is instead a tool of oppression being wielded by a party fighting a rear-guard action to defend its own power.
With every day that goes by, the new legal and legislative edifice of voter suppression is being built higher. It’s a phenomenon that Lewis would have recognized and fought because the civil rights struggle was always marked by the emergence of new obstacles. It is the reason he reminded us on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington that for those committed to the cause of justice, “our struggle does not last for one day, one week or one year, but it is the struggle of a lifetime, and each generation must do its part.”
It’s time to do our part.
Mary Frances Berry is a professor of American social thought, history, and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and board member at People For the American Way