On March 9, 1998, John Lewis returned to the site of his bloodiest, most brutal confrontation in the fight for civil rights. Lewis had shown up in Selma, Alabama, that day to commemorate the 33rd anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march, first with a dedication for the old church where the march started, and then to receive a key to the city. Waiting there for Lewis was an old, now-bowed adversary: Selma Mayor Joseph “Joe” Smitherman.
Smitherman had only recently been sworn in as mayor when Lewis and 600 others were beaten by police while trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Smitherman was a segregationist who ordered city police to join the sheriff’s deputies and state troopers armed with tear gas, nightsticks, and electric cattle prods. Though the City Council prevented Selma’s officers from wading into the clash, Smitherman had already made his feelings clear. Lewis was famously bloodied during the march; the state troopers were so violent that they fractured his skull.
But on this day 33 years later in Selma, the times and social mores had changed. Lewis came to town as a living hero, the moral conscience of the country’s greatest deliberative body. Smitherman was thus cast as a different sort of relic of the Jim Crow South, still clinging to power in a small town that represented the worst abuses of the civil rights era. “Back then, I called him an outside rabble-rouser,” Smitherman said during the ceremony. ”Today, I call him one of the most courageous people I ever met.”
Smitherman survived politically for years by winning almost all of the town’s white vote and picking off a few Black voters. In his final election in 2000, two years after he said those nice words about Lewis, he again blamed outside Black agitators for stirring up old trouble. He claimed his Black opponent, James Perkins, brought “people from California, the NAACP, Al Sharpton, all this crowd into Selma to try to affect the outcome of a city race.” Smitherman ultimately lost that race, ending his 35-year reign in Selma.
I thought of Smitherman, whose role in maintaining white supremacy made Lewis’ work necessary in the first place, as an avalanche of tributes to Lewis came in late Friday night and Saturday morning following his death at 80. Who would be the Smitherman, I wondered—the disingenuous antagonist who kept Lewis fighting until his dying breath? Who would attempt to redraw the battle lines to feign allyship with an American hero? Who would shamelessly celebrate the life of Lewis only to work assiduously to thwart his life’s work?
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy lauded Lewis as a “patriot in the truest sense” and posted a picture of himself trailing Lewis on a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 2015. “One of the greatest honors of my life was to join him for multiple trips to Selma to march across the bridge,” he said. But McCarthy has never done anything to show that those trips—meant to commemorate the bloody fight to protect and expand the right to vote—were anything other than timely photo opportunities. When Lewis was co-sponsor of a bill to renew portions of the Voting Rights Act in December, McCarthy and all but one of his Republican members voted against it. As recently as April, McCarthy blasted voting by mail as dangerous for the country and said the system involves “a lot of fraud” while offering no evidence for the claim.
The Cato Institute also sought to align itself with Lewis, calling him a “Libertarian Hero” in a tweet on Saturday morning, linking to a January tribute. But only seven years ago, the think tank filed a brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act. The court’s ruling in that case, Shelby v. Holder, allowed nine states, most of them in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. “It is long past time to declare victory over Jim Crow and move on to a healthier stage of race relations,” the institute wrote. It’s worth remembering that last month, on the seventh anniversary of the Shelby v. Holder decision, Lewis was still urging the court to reconsider. “It is a shame and a disgrace. I urge you to correct course and take action. Time is of the essence to preserve the integrity and promises of our democracy,” Lewis wrote, by then publicly ailing with the pancreatic cancer that would kill him. Cato was no more an ally to Lewis than Smitherman and the troopers had been.
From the state where Lewis settled, raised a family, and launched a political career, Gov. Brian Kemp made his attempt at a testimonial. Lewis “was a Civil Rights hero, freedom fighter, devoted public servant, and beloved Georgian who changed our world in a profound way,” Kemp tweeted Saturday. But it is Kemp who is perhaps the best example of the resistance Lewis faced in trying to change the world.
As Georgia’s secretary of state, Kemp was at the forefront of a national GOP-led movement to make voting more difficult, from championing photo ID laws to prosecuting residents on specious claims of voter fraud. Kemp directed the removal of 1.5 million voters from the state rolls from 2012 to 2016, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.
While running for governor in 2018 but still serving as secretary of state, Kemp purged the state’s voter rolls in a move that mostly affected Black voters. Lewis found the conflict of interest so egregious that he called on Kemp to resign. “Brian Kemp is actively abusing the power of his office to make it more difficult for Georgians to vote,” Lewis said then. “His actions make it impossible for voters to trust that this election will be administered in a fair and impartial way.” Kemp eventually prevailed over Stacey Abrams, his Democratic opponent, in the election. He gets to call Lewis a hero from the governor’s mansion.
But most notable among those paying respects Saturday morning was Sen. Mitch McConnell. “He endured hatred and violence,” McConnell said of Lewis in a press release. “But he kept working, because he was convinced that our nation had to be better.”
McConnell was in law school in August 1965 when he was invited to a ceremony to witness then-President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act. For McConnell, the legislative accomplishment was most impressive not for guaranteeing the franchise for Black Americans but for its bipartisan support. “On issues of great national significance, one party should never simply force its will on everybody else,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2015. Over the years, McConnell managed to fashion himself as a friend to civil rights activists. A New York Times profile in July 2015 referred to his “longstanding commitment to civil rights legislation.” McConnell pointed out that he was raised in Kentucky by parents who opposed segregation and that he’d even attended the March on Washington in 1963, where Lewis was the youngest featured speaker.
But by 2007, McConnell did not appear very committed to the fight that continued to fuel Lewis and his work. That year McConnell proposed an amendment to a Senate immigration bill that would have changed the Voting Rights Act to require that all voters show photo identification. From then on, McConnell was stubbornly against any measures to restore any pieces of the legislation that he’d witnessed signed into law a half-century before. “It’s been a big success. It’s worked,” he insisted of the now-kneecapped Voting Rights Act. “It’s important to understand how different the South is now. America has come a long way.”
Lewis, of course, knew better. He was in the Supreme Court chamber during the challenge to the Voting Rights Act, later telling Ari Berman of Mother Jones that “he almost cried when Justice Antonin Scalia compared the VRA to a ‘racial entitlement.’ ”
In many ways, McConnell’s betrayal was what kept Lewis working in his final years. “In December 2019, Lewis presided over the House as it passed legislation to restore and modernize the Voting Rights Act, requiring states with a long history of voting discrimination to once again get federal approval for any changes to voting procedures,” Berman writes. “In a primary season marred by voting problems, like six-hour lines in Lewis’ home state of Georgia, it’s been sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk for 225 days.”
Lewis would often bring members of Congress to Selma to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, trying to draw a connection between the conditions that called for his civil rights activism back then and today’s inequality and, sometimes, unrest. Lewis returned to Selma this March for the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, clearly weakened by cancer. Everyone seemed to understand it would be his final time crossing that bridge. A lot had changed since the first march from Selma to Montgomery. Smitherman was long gone; he died in 2005. There were no helmeted state troopers waiting for Lewis and the marchers on the other side. But the fight that defined John Lewis’ life, and the people and institutions that stood in his way, blocking progress, undermining rights, were still there, and he knew it. “I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to give in,” Lewis said that day. “We must use the vote as a nonviolent instrument or tool to redeem the soul of America.”
Lewis continued his march for equality long after he survived the beating in Selma. It is an obvious tragedy that so much of his life’s work remained undone, something he alluded to last summer. “Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year—it is the struggle of a lifetime,” he posted on Twitter. But it’s important to remember, as the tributes roll in, that the struggle continues because of people like Brian Kemp and Mitch McConnell. They are not the well-meaning allies who happen to sit on the other side of the aisle. They are not the good men who had reasonable disagreements with a civil rights icon. If John Lewis is a hero, they are the villains.
Correction, July 20, 2020: Due to a photo provider error, the caption originally misidentified the Voting Rights Advancement Act as the Voting Rights Enhancement Act.