MLK III: In the Name of John Lewis, Let Us Restore the Voting Rights Act | Opinion

With the death of Congressman John Lewis, America has lost one of our greatest champions of freedom and democracy at a time when voting rights are under relentless attack across the nation. Lewis' legacy as a courageous and visionary champion of voting rights for Americans of all races challenges each of us to carry forward the nonviolent struggle to eradicate all forms of voter suppression in the United States.

Lewis was a beloved friend and inspiration to me, and I was proud that he was my congressman for many years. Like my father, Martin Luther King Jr., he personified the power of nonviolence, and offered his body and his blood to secure the right of all Americans to vote. Brutally beaten at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, he said he "gave a little blood" to dramatize the critical importance of the right to vote. The images of Lewis and other civil rights movement protesters being assaulted by police on that day encouraged President Lyndon Johnson to call a joint session of Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Later that year, it became law.

Lewis understood that the unobstructed right to vote for all citizens, regardless of their race, religion or gender, is the cornerstone of every great democracy. A recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize, Lewis worked tirelessly to end voter suppression practices that are still being deployed. The Voting Rights Alliance lists 61 forms of voter suppression. These include: reducing the number of polling places in communities of color, intimidating voters on Election Day, "caging" and purging of registration rolls in selected ZIP codes, discriminatory voter identification requirements, draconian felon disenfranchisement laws, faulty voting machines in minority precincts, manipulation of legal residency requirements for college students, shrinking the window for early voting in key states and excessive restrictions on voting by mail, to name just a few.

Yet in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, allowing states with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices to change their election laws without prior federal approval. In recent years, counties in these states have closed about 1,700 polling places and purged voters at a rate 40 percent higher than others. Meanwhile, at least 25 states have enacted new voting restrictions, making voter registration more difficult, rolling back early or absentee voting, passing strict voter ID requirements and preventing formerly incarcerated individuals from regaining their right to vote. It has become harder for Americans to vote—particularly voters of color, the elderly, students and people with disabilities. Now is the time to take up the fight to eliminate these and other voter suppression practices.

The daunting challenges Americans face in 2020, including police violence and its cascading repercussions in many American communities, deepening polarization and the COVID-19 pandemic, underscore the enormous consequences of our elections and the leaders we chose to guide us through crises. My fervent hope that the celebration of Lewis' life and legacy will energize millions of Americans to vote and elect leaders who will honor his memory by passing laws to make it easier, not harder, to vote.

Congressman John Lewis
Congressman John Lewis is photographed in his offices in the Canon House office building on March 17, 2009, in Washington, D.C. Jeff Hutchens/Getty

The House voted in December to restore the Voting Rights Act, but the Senate did not take up the legislation. On Wednesday, 48 senators reintroduced it under a new name: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

We cannot rest until exercising the right to vote is simple and easy for all Americans. Restoring the Voting Rights Act to its full strength is one of the best ways we can honor the life and legacy of Lewis.

John Lewis was often called "the conscience of Congress" with good reason. He provided a vibrant moral compass for his fellow House members—and indeed, for elected officials in federal, state and local legislative bodies across America. As we mourn his passing and celebrate his lifelong service to humanity, we are challenged to pick up the torch of democracy he has bequeathed to us all and carry it forward with the unrelenting passion and conviction he demonstrated so courageously.

Martin Luther King III is a global human rights activist and the son of Martin Luther King Jr.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.