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Two blood-splattered Freedom Riders, John Lewis (1940 - 2020) and James Zwerg, stand together after being attacked and beaten by pro-segregationists in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 20, 1961. (Photo: Bettmann via Getty Images)

Two blood-splattered Freedom Riders, John Lewis (1940 - 2020) and James Zwerg, stand together after being attacked and beaten by pro-segregationists in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 20, 1961. (Photo: Bettmann via Getty Images)

To Honor John Lewis, Progressives Say, 'End the Filibuster' and Pass Voting Rights Legislation

"Remembering and celebrating John Lewis today is important," said Rep. Cori Bush. "Abolishing the filibuster to secure the right to vote for everyone is how we must protect his legacy."

Kenny Stancil

On the one-year anniversary of his death, progressives on Saturday made the case that the best way to honor the legacy of former Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, who risked his life to contribute to the struggle for Black Americans' right to vote and live with dignity, is to repeal the Senate filibuster and pass bills aimed at strengthening U.S. democracy.

"Remembering and celebrating John Lewis today is important," said Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.). "Abolishing the filibuster to secure the right to vote for everyone is how we must protect his legacy."

Ahead of Saturday night's Good Trouble Candlelight Vigil for Democracy from 8 to 10 p.m. ET at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.—which is one of many commemorative events taking place nationwide—a chorus of progressive lawmakers, candidates, and advocates made versions of Bush's argument.

"One year ago today, we lost an American giant," said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). "John Lewis was a towering figure, both here on the Hill and across the world, immediately recognized for his unflinching commitment to building a more equal world. The best way to honor him is by passing voting rights legislation."

In another tweet, Khanna made clear that upholding Lewis' legacy "means ending the filibuster to pass the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act."

Khanna shared a photo of the pair standing together on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. That's where, on March 7, 1965, Lewis and other civil rights activists were nearly beaten to death by state troopers during a peaceful march in support of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

Following years of involvement in the movement to dismantle the Jim Crow regime of legalized racial segregation and white supremacy, Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders, was eventually elected to represent Georgia's 5th congressional district in 1987.

After spending more than three decades as a member of the U.S. Congress, Lewis died on June 17, 2020, following a six-month battle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

When the VRA was signed into law by then-President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, the landmark piece of legislation prohibited racially discriminatory voting laws, such as the ones enacted across the U.S. South in the aftermath of the right-wing defeat of Reconstruction. 

However, the VRA has been weakened over time, particularly by the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

Prior to 2013, the VRA required states and municipalities with histories of racial discrimination at the polls to gain federal approval before changing election laws. But in a 5-4 ruling, the high court invalidated a key section of the law, with the conservative majority arguing that there was insufficient evidence that people of color continued to face barriers to voting.

The gutting of the VRA opened the door to the Republican Party's ongoing campaign to make it harder for millions of Americans, particularly communities of color and other Democratic-leaning constituencies, to vote.

Earlier this month, the high court's right-wing justices delivered another blow to the VRA when they voted 6-3 to uphold voter suppression policies in Arizona, potentially greenlighting additional state-level disenfranchisement efforts.

H.R. 4, now known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, seeks to restore voter protections that were eliminated eight years ago.

Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) 2020 presidential campaign, paid homage to Lewis on Saturday.

"You crossed that bridge for all of us—as visionaries, freedom fighters, and organizers," said Turner, who is currently running for U.S. Congress in Ohio's 11th district. "We owe it to you to keep the struggle alive. Now we must end the filibuster and pass the voting rights legislation that carries your name."

Another piece of voting rights legislation, the For the People Act, is a popular bill that would counter Republican lawmakers' attacks on the franchise and increase ballot access throughout the country by establishing minimum electoral standards in every state. 

Key provisions of H.R. 1 and S. 1, as the bill is called, include implementing automatic voter registration, limiting states' ability to purge voters from the rolls, requiring states to adopt independent redistricting commissions to combat partisan gerrymandering, and setting up a publicly financed small-dollar donation matching system for candidates who reject high-dollar contributions.

Although the deadly coup attempt carried out on January 6 by supporters of then-President Donald Trump failed, Trump's "big lie" that the 2020 election was stolen from him has been "weaponized," in the words of author and voting rights expert Ari Berman, to fuel a wave of voter suppression bills nationwide. 

As of May 14, Republican lawmakers in 49 states had introduced at least 389 bills that would either restrict ballot access or grant GOP-controlled state legislatures more power to shape electoral outcomes in ways that undermine the will of voters, according to the Brennan Center for Justice's latest tally.

Of the proposed voter suppression bills, 28 have been signed into law in 17 states so far, and 61 bills are moving through 18 state legislatures. According to the Brennan Center, however, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would effectively neutralize the onslaught being waged by the increasingly authoritarian GOP.

While House Democrats in March passed H. 1 without the support of a single House Republican, Senate Republicans last month prevented debate on S. 1 by deploying the anti-democratic filibuster, which requires a 60-vote supermajority to advance most legislation.

During a speech on Tuesday, President Joe Biden denounced right-wing lawmakers' for attacking voting rights. On Tuesday and again on Saturday, Biden urged passage of H.R. 1 and H.R. 4, but he did not call for repealing the filibuster rule used by Senate Republicans to block the very bills that would nullify the GOP's assault on U.S. democracy.

After the president's address last week, critics highlighted the "wide gap between Biden's rhetoric and his leadership," as Battle Born Collective executive director Adam Jentleson put it.

Progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups implored Biden to press senators to repeal the filibuster, which can be done with a simple-majority vote, assuming conservative hold-outs like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) can be brought on board.

Sinema, for her part, came under fire on Saturday for "claiming [to] honor John Lewis while you block the work he stood for," as Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II noted.

For months, the left has argued that a failure to weaken or eliminate the filibuster will make it virtually impossible to pass pro-democracy bills through the Senate, where the 50-member Democratic caucus has a razor-thin edge due to Vice President Kamala Harris' ability to cast a tie-breaking vote.

Berman has urged the president—who has expressed openness to reforming the filibuster but stopped short of demanding its abolition—to push for "exempting voting rights bills from the filibuster," a call that he reiterated on Saturday.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, on Saturday said that one year after losing her "friend and an American hero," it is important to keep Lewis' "fight alive."

"We're going to end the filibuster and pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act," she added. "Never give up. Never give in."

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