LISTEN: Reflections On What John Lewis' Legacy Means Today | Connecticut Public Radio
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LISTEN: Reflections On What John Lewis' Legacy Means Today

Jul 27, 2020

The late civil rights icon John Lewis will lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington this week. He is to be buried on Thursday. 

Back in 2015, Lewis stood by the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He had been brutally beaten there 50 years earlier while demonstrating for voting rights, and he said there was still work to be done. 

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Khalilah Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, co-wrote the report 50 Years of the Voting Rights Act: The State of Race in Politics, which was presented that day. And she was there to hear John Lewis speak.   

Connecticut Public Radio’s Morning Edition host, Diane Orson, spoke with Khalilah Brown-Dean. Here are highlights from their conversation.  

Khalilah Brown-Dean
Credit Courtesy Khalilah Brown-Dean

Can you take us back five years ago to the moment you stood at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma? What was that moment like for you?

It was perhaps one of the most defining moments of my life. To be there at the Edmund Pettus Bridge -- this bridge that is named after a Klan grand wizard -- and to look and see Congressman John Lewis, who 50 years ago had stood in that exact same spot leading young people in a silent, nonviolent protest. And then to look past his shoulder and to see the country’s first African American president was this powerful moment about what America could be about if we committed to that.

Perhaps John Lewis’ most powerful legacy was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Can you talk about the Voting Rights Act in 2020 and what it means for the upcoming election?

What we’ve learned from John Lewis’ legacy in terms of the Voting Rights Act is that there is no constitutional and protected right to vote. That means that right now in 2020, hundreds of polling places have been moved or closed in communities who don’t have access to transportation. And communities that tend to have older voters who vote frequently, tend to have communities of color or working-class communities.  

Where we are in 2020 is a result of what happened in 1965, but also this key Supreme Court case a few years ago, which essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act.  

That means the outcomes we saw in 2016 of people waiting very long times to vote will be magnified in 2020 because of COVID, because of the failure to protect the ability to vote. And that’s something that touches every one of us regardless of race or ethnicity. 

John Lewis was among the last of a generation of great civil rights leaders of the 1960s. What do you think was his most important message to young people today?

The fact that he was a young college student and literally risked his life. Not only did he suffer permanent brain damage on that bridge in Selma, he also faced his university saying, “If you speak up in this way, we will expel you from school.”

John Lewis did that as a young man. He didn’t wait to be an adult. He didn’t wait for someone to anoint him as a leader. He stood up where he was, and he led from where he was.  

That’s the legacy and the message for young people across our country. Don’t wait for old people to pass the baton because that day may never come.

Run the race that you are set out to run because you know that you are fighting for something bigger than who you are.