An Open Letter to the Community:

By Deborah Smith Gregory, president of Newark NAACPNJ

In the midst of a historic pandemic and unprecedented civil unrest, mighty oak trees are falling. We hear them and we feel the impact made by a huge hole left gaping open.

Congressman John R. Lewis was a mighty oak tree. His work for securing voting rights for African Americans goes back to the genesis of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. When we think of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we tend to think primarily of Dr. King . But Lewis, as a young man was there too. Beaten, battered and jailed, he never lost sight of the importance of voting rights for his people.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was an act to “enforce” the 15th Amendment to the Constitution which gave black people the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed all discriminatory voting practices particularly those adopted in many Southern states such as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses. The new law was an answer to the 1964 demonstrations that put a sustained pressure for justice against racial discrimination. There was an immediate impact and by the end of 1965, 25,000 new black voters had been registered. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was readopted and strengthened in 1970, 1975 and 1982.

I can recall the first time it had to be readopted in 1970. I was a student at Seton Hall University, a beneficiary of the newly formed Equal Opportunity Fund Act that made higher education more accessible to people of color. The EOF came into being as a result of the 1967 rebellions across the country with Newark, my home town being one of the hardest hit.

I recall my youthful confidence as the question arose on campus and in Black Studies classes, would we continue to have the right to vote like our white counterparts without harassment, intimidation or worse, death? I remember the conversations and my resolute reply that there was absolutely no way our right to vote could ever be taken away from us again. That hurdle had been crossed and there was no way it would be reversed. We did not have to worry about that. And yet here we are again in 2020, pushing for fair voting rights.

John Lewis worked to make the 1965 Voting Rights Act happen and he never lost sight that there was always a threat of the basic right of American citizens- the right to vote- being snatched away from black people. In December, the house passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 that would restore certain key protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act against racial discrimination that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.

NAACP Newark NJ urges the Senate to move the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 and to rename the bill to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The bill moved to the Senate and under the leadership of Mitch McConnell has sat for seven months. Now that the champion of voting rights is gone, McConnell can do more than pay lip service about the greatness of Lewis. McConnell can move the bill to the floor and urge an immediate vote on it. And the bill should be named the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The bill would revise the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Why are we still fighting for fairness in voting? Because there has always a back lash to the advancement of colored people in America.

It is a nice idea to rename a bridge after Congressman Lewis but a lasting, meaningful tribute would be passage of the bill. The Edmund Pettis Bridge was a portion of his work- not the entirety. His 30- year legacy as a lawmaker, a bridge himself between the marginalized and opportunity, a champion for social justice calls for the passage of the bill.

We urge Senators Cory Booker, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to appeal to their colleagues to move this bill in honor of Mr. Lewis. Governors Murphy and Cuomo are examples of the power of cooperation.

John A. Lewis took a stand on a bridge and got his head bashed in on a bloody Sunday. The question today is where do we take a stand? Do we stay home and get our heads bashed in by the blunt weapons of nonaction? Do we complain, sit home and watch the old clips of Congressman Lewis and talk about his greatness? Do we talk about him till he is laid to rest and then move on? Or do we bring pressure to bear on the resistant McConnell by bombarding his office with calls to move the bill?

A mighty oak tree has fallen; a gaping hole is left. It’s not about who will fill it. We can all fill it with sustained pressure and our votes at the polls on November 3rd. Call/write McConnell and the Senators listed below to urge them to push for the Voting Rights Advancement Bill to be renamed to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Bill and to put the bill on the docket for a vote now!

Phone numbers:

U.S. Capitol Switchboard – 202-224-3121

Sen. McConnell’s Direct Line – 202-225-2541

Sen. Menendez -202-224-4744.

Sen. Booker – 202-224-3224.

Sen. Chuck Schumer-202-224-6542

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand-202-224-4451.