Voting Rights and the personal politics of U.S. Rep. John Lewis

Catherine Paden | 8/16/2013, 6 a.m.

As the often-gridlocked Congress considers new voting rights legislation, which Rep. Nancy Pelosi has suggested calling, “The John Lewis Voting Rights Act,” perhaps Rep. Lewis’ model of political leadership, rooted in his personal history, will facilitate civil rights progress.

Rep. Lewis reminds us that laws have consequences — unjust and draconian Jim Crow laws led to life-threatening injuries as he mobilized for the right to vote.

When describing the events of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, the day demonstrators were attacked in Selma, Ala., for their attempts to gain the right to vote, Lewis reported to a federal judge: “I was hit with a billy club. … I was hit twice, once when I was lying down and attempting to get up. … When we were forced back, most of the people in line knelt in a prayerful manner. … [The troopers] started throwing gas and people became sick and started vomiting, and some of us were forced off the highway and behind some buildings in the woods.” 

Those personal injuries shaped a powerful political leader. Rep. Lewis reminds us that the political is, in fact, personal.

Catherine Paden, Ph.D., is an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Simmons College. She is also the author of the book Civil Rights Advocacy on Behalf of the Poor.