When I was a young staff member on the Hill, my office was right next to Congressman Lewis’ office. I would often sit on his couch and admire the photos he had on his wall — photos of him alongside titans like Dr. King, Fannie Lou Hamer, A. Philip Randolph and so many others. They were reminders that Congressman Lewis didn’t just witness history. He shaped it. He shaped it on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, at the March on Washington and in meeting halls and churches across the country. His life reflected the experiences of so many people that he didn’t even know. Growing up, I used to hear stories from my grandfather about his own struggles in South Carolina.
For his trouble, Congressman Lewis was harassed, beaten and bloodied within an inch of his life. And yet, he was one of the sweetest, kindest people you would ever meet. There was not a shred of bitterness or frustration in him for what he endured. In its place, he seemed to carry the spirit and power of the entire Civil Rights Movement. When he spoke, it felt as if he conveyed the story of 400 years of struggle. Not because his words were soaring or bombastic, but because you could tell that the man speaking them was no stranger to bold and courageous action.
He had the power to break people out of their bubbles and remind his fellow lawmakers that their decisions were about more than the current moment. He situated debates and legislation in the broad sweep of history. He made political calculations fall away.
I saw it firsthand in Congress when I worked for Congressman Clyburn. As floor director for Majority Whip Clyburn, my job was to help the Democratic leadership pass important legislation like the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. In the run up to the vote, we were not even sure we had enough Democratic votes. We were in the majority, so the numbers were on our side. But we lacked the will. It was moments like these when Congressman Lewis’ unique power was on display.
As a man who had himself made history, he had a keen sense for when history was in the making. He was able to remind his fellow lawmakers that a bill as important as hate crime legislation was about more than political considerations. It was about doing what was right and just. It was about bending the course of history a bit more in the right direction. It was John Lewis who shepherded the last reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, under a Congress controlled by Republicans and with a Republican president in the White House.
Now more than ever, as Republican lawmakers across the country try to deny Americans the right to vote, we feel Congressman Lewis’ absence. When it came to an issue like protecting voting rights, he was famous for getting even the firmest “no’” to change into a “yes.”
I wonder if the Republicans attacking voting rights today would have been able to face Congressman Lewis and continue down the path of voter suppression. I wonder if he could have convinced them that their efforts to cut voting hours and close polling places echoed the grandfather clauses and literacy tests he fought so hard against.
I’m sure if we were able to ask him, he would be quick to remind us of our own power. It’s something he would often do for me. When Congressman Lewis announced that he was sick, I gave him a call. When I did, the first thing he asked was “young brother, you getting in some good trouble?”
At the time, I was running against Sen. Lindsey Graham for a Senate seat once held by Strom Thurmond and trying to break down South Carolina’s big red wall. Even as his health declined, Congressman Lewis was passionate about making sure the next generation knew how proud he was to see us pick up where he would leave off. He truly believed in our ability to make change. As we approach the anniversary of his passing, I am reminded of that question he asked me. Good trouble is Congressman Lewis’ legacy.
It’s a legacy that I, and my fellow Democrats, are working to honor. Not just through our words, but through bold and courageous action. We saw the spark of good trouble in Texas this week. To once again defeat voter suppression legislation, Democrats in the Texas State House walked out and denied Gov. Abbott and the Republicans the quorum they needed to make it harder to vote. Just like Congressman Lewis, they are willing to get in good trouble for the cause of voting rights.
The Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) massive expansion of the I Will Vote initiative is another bold step that meets the urgency of this moment in history. While the GOP tries to undo the progress that Congressman Lewis bled for, and that too many in the movement died for, we are fighting back. We are assembling our largest ever voter protection team to face down the gravest threat to voting rights in a generation. On our watch, the clock will not be turned back.
Our $25 million investment to educate, organize, turnout and protect voters will help ensure that every voice and every vote matters. We’ll use that money in part to do the sort of grassroots organizing that Congressman Lewis was so good at. By investing in folks on the ground that know their communities best, we will make sure that voters are registered and equipped to make their vote count. And that’s not even counting the $20 million we’ve committed to spend before the general election next year!
We will also continue the fight to codify into law what Congressman Lewis struggled for. By passing legislation like the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, we can demonstrate our country’s lasting commitment to the gains won by him and other activists. We can truly show our appreciation for the sacrifices that have brought us this far.
We do this work because, like Congressman Lewis, we are clear-eyed about our country’s history. We all carry a piece of that history. As a Black man in Jim Crow South Carolina, my grandfather faced many obstacles in his attempts to cast a ballot. Congressman Lewis helped to secure and protect his right to vote along with the right to vote of so many others. He made our country better by doing so. Voting together became a tradition for my grandfather and me before he passed, and that sense of civic responsibility shaped my entire life.
Now, with the ghost of Jim Crow threatening to rise, it is our responsibility to carry the work further and recommit to voting rights. Not just for ourselves, but for those to come. My oldest son bears my grandfather’s name, but we cannot let him or his younger brother bear the same burdens that my grandfather felt at the polls. Congressman Lewis and countless others fought for our right to vote. It is our job now to protect it.
Jaime Harrison is the current chair of the Democratic National Committee and former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party from 2013 to 2017.