Friday, September 7, 2012

Charlotte, Day 3: Can we get a moral witness


THE ONGOING assault on voter registration efforts in the runup to the Nov. 6 election has been reported and scrutinized through the media’s lens, so much so in recent months that in the flurry of assertions and counter-assertions, suits and countersuits, there’s been a flattening of the issue in the digital discourse. Voters’ rights has become just one of the competing water-cooler topics of the day.

John Lewis begs to differ. He came to the podium at the Democratic National Convention last night, giving shape and voice and dimension to the issue of voters’ rights as only he can.

The legendary Georgia congressman, tested in the baptism by fire that was the tragedy on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965, spoke with an eloquence, and with the same call to courage that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick employed when he called on Democrats to summon a “backbone” in his address on Tuesday.



Lewis recounted his experience as one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, the civil rights movement’s canaries in the coal mine, the ones who tested the intractability of Jim Crow voter-registration and public-accommodation laws in the Deep South — and often at great physical peril.

In 1961, in Rock Hill, S.C., Lewis was beaten with other Freedom Riders as they attempted to gain access to a whites-only restroom — one of literally countless acts of violence in the crucible days of the civil rights era.

“A few years ago, a man from Rock Hill, inspired by President Obama's election, decided to come forward,” Lewis said. “He came to my office in Washington and said, ‘I am one of the people who beat you. I want to apologize. Will you forgive me?’ I said, ‘I accept your apology.’ He started crying. He gave me a hug. I hugged him back, and we both started crying. This man and I don't want to go back. We don’t want to go back. We want to move forward.”

“Brothers and sisters, do you want to go back? Or do you want to keep America moving forward?”

Then Lewis makes the connection between the everyday battle of that time-distant era and the new fights underway to protect the gains secured and enshrined in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law whose provisions are now under attack in several Republican-governed states around the country.

“My dear friends, your vote is precious — almost sacred,” he said. “It is the most powerful nonviolent took we have to create a more perfect union.”

“Today it is unbelievable that there are Republican officials trying to stop some people from voting. They’re changing the rules, cutting polling hours and imposing requirements intended to suppress the vote … that’s not right, that’s not fair and it is not just.”

“I’ve seen this before. I’ve lived this before. Too many struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.”

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., once observed: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In King’s time and today, that arc has maintained its necessary trajectory in the hands of democracy's true believers — among them, John Lewis: thunderous, passionate, a moral witness like no other.

Image credit: John Lewis: From DNC pool video feed.

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