50 Years Later, Fighting the Same Civil Rights Battle



WASHINGTON — John Lewis was the 23-year-old son of Alabama sharecroppers and already a veteran of the civil rights movement when he came to the capital 50 years ago this month to deliver a fiery call for justice on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Mr. Lewis’s urgent cry — “We want our freedom, and we want it now!” — was eclipsed on the steps that day by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. But two years later, after Alabama State Police officers beat him and fractured his skull while he led a march in Selma, he was back in Washington to witness President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Today Mr. Lewis is a congressman from Georgia and the sole surviving speaker from the March on Washington in August 1963. His history makes him the closest thing to a moral voice in the divided Congress. At 73, he is still battling a half-century-old fight.

With the Voting Rights Act in jeopardy now that the Supreme Court has invalidated one of its central provisions, Mr. Lewis, a Democrat, is fighting an uphill battle to reauthorize it. He is using his stature as a civil rights icon to prod colleagues like the Republican leader, Eric Cantor, to get on board. He has also met with the mother of Trayvon Martin and compared the shooting of the unarmed Florida teenager to the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

Mr. Lewis has an answer for those who say the election of a black president was a fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream: It was only “a down payment,” he said in an interview.

“There’s a lot of pain, a lot of hurt in America,” Mr. Lewis said in his office on Capitol Hill, which resembles a museum with wall-to-wall black-and-white photographs of the civil rights movement. Current events, he said, “remind us of our dark past.”

But Mr. Lewis, a longtime practitioner of civil disobedience (he has been arrested four times since joining Congress), is also encouraged. He said he found it gratifying to see peaceful throngs “protesting in a nonviolent fashion” after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Mr. Martin’s killing. Last week, he created a minor dust-up by telling Britain’s Guardian newspaper that Edward J. Snowden, the national security contractor who leaked classified documents, could argue that he was “appealing to a higher law,” but later condemned the leaks.

Now Mr. Lewis is introducing himself to a new generation by telling the story of his life as a Freedom Rider in “March,” a graphic novel that is being released this week. The book’s co-author is a young aide, Andrew Aydin, who pestered Mr. Lewis until he agreed to cooperate; it is modeled on a 1958 comic about Dr. King, which inspired early sit-ins.

Mr. Lewis remains a link to that past. At a recent Urban League convention in Philadelphia, he was on fire as he told the crowd how his parents reacted when he asked about colored-only signs a lifetime ago in the Deep South.

“They would say, ‘That’s the way it is, don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble,’ ” Mr. Lewis thundered in a preacher’s cadence. “But one day, I was inspired to get in the way, to get in trouble. And for more than 50 years, I’ve been getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble! And it’s time for all of us to get in trouble again!”

Last month, the congressman made a splash at Comic-Con in San Diego, where Lou Ferrigno, the original Incredible Hulk, was among the fans who lined up to see him. But it was serious business, a way for him to reach young people, Mr. Lewis said, and fulfill his duty to “bear witness” and “tell the story.”

Each year, Mr. Lewis leads an emotional re-enactment of the so-called Bloody Sunday march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the brutal police response horrified the nation. Mr. Cantor participated this year, bringing his college-age son, and said he came away “very moved” — a sentiment that Mr. Lewis will no doubt play on during negotiations over a new bill.

“John is what I call a gentle spirit,” said Roy Barnes, a former Georgia governor, recalling a visit Mr. Lewis paid him in 2001 when he was wrestling with removing the Confederate emblem from the state flag.

“He said, ‘Right before I lost consciousness, I looked up and saw an Alabama state trooper beating me on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and all I could see was a confederate flag on his helmet,’ ” Mr. Barnes recalled. “He said, ‘I want you to remember that.’ ”

At the Urban League conference, a pantheon of civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, mingled backstage, but all eyes were on Mr. Lewis. Convention workers asked for pictures. Benjamin Crump, the Martin family lawyer, clutched a copy of “March,” hoping for an autograph. Teary-eyed strangers asked for hugs.

It is often this way for Mr. Lewis. He seems sheepish about the attention, and his speeches hint at survivor’s guilt. “All I did was give a little blood on that bridge,” he often says. Pointing to old photos, he refers to himself as “young John Lewis,” as if he were seeing someone else.

It is a long way from dusty Troy, Ala., where Mr. Lewis, one of 10 children, picked cotton and preached the Gospel to his chickens. His life took a turn when, at 18, he wrote to Dr. King. Mr. Lewis was studying at a Baptist seminary in Nashville, but was thinking about trying to integrate his hometown college, Troy State, now Troy University. Dr. King sent bus fare for Mr. Lewis to meet him in nearby Montgomery.


President Obama’s no-Congress strategy

President Obama is pictured. | AP Photo

The president is done caring about congressional Republicans calling him a dictator. | AP Photo


President Barack Obama is planning to bypass congressional Republicans with a surge of executive actions and orders on issues like voting rights, health care, job creation, the economy, climate change and immigration.

And this time, he really, really, really means it. Really.

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Obama’s started to sell his pitch to congressional Democrats, meeting with caucus groups at the White House and going to the Hill on Wednesday morning to speak with House and Senate Democrats.

(PHOTOS: Obama’s second term)

“I have to figure out what I can do outside of Congress through executive actions,” Obama told the Congressional Black Caucus earlier this month, according to Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.).

“He’s very ready to use his executive powers whenever possible,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) who heard Obama discuss the new approach at a meeting of the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus to the White House last week.

With the clock running on Obama’s time in office — he’s even started marking the number of days left in public speeches — the president is done caring about congressional Republicans calling him a dictator. Or calling him at all.

Obama can’t ignore Republicans forever. There’s no way for the president to avoid negotiations to get continuing resolutions to avoid a government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling — and depending how things go, rebuff GOP efforts to defund Obamacare and possibly a compromise on immigration reform. Chief of staff Denis McDonough’s functioning as an almost one-man legislative affairs office can’t do it all.

(Also on POLITICO: W.H. seeks to redefine grand bargain)

And he’s used the executive authority tactic before, including last summer’s controversial move to cut deportations for younger illegal immigrants and the mental health focus he announced as part of his gun control agenda after the Newtown massacre.

But administration officials and advisers say what’s ahead will be more extensive and frequent than previous efforts, and the White House is on the hunt for anything that can move without congressional approval, including encouraging efforts like Attorney General Eric Holder’s lawsuits to find new avenues of enforcement in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act last month.

He’s even started soliciting suggestions for where to move next. Bass and other CBC members asked him to change the Medicaid process in territories to base allocations on income level, to repeal the Bush minimum wage federal contractor policies and to address child welfare. The CAPAC members also offered suggestions like changing the federal government’s process of recognizing native Hawaiians.

Obama told them he was open to all of them, and said his staff is working on others in the model of the new emission standards he announced as part of his climate agenda last month.

Eventually, executive actions and orders will be unveiled as part of the economic agenda Obama began hinting at in his speeches last week, addressing things like mortgage refinancing and restructuring — which is about as extensive as the White House expects things to get, even as they talk of welcoming negotiations with Republicans over the debt ceiling. And get ready, he’s told people, for a whole lot more recess appointments if Republicans start blocking his nominees again.

Executive actions are a familiar move for second-term presidents, and one that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush came to know well: rules and regulations can have deep and wide impact, and they come without all the messiness of Capitol Hill.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration opened an aggressive new front in the battle over voter protection Thursday, singling out Texas for legal action and promising broader efforts to come after last month’s Supreme Court ruling that wiped out a major provision of the Voting Rights Act.

It was the administration’s first legal response to counter the justices’ 5-4 decision, but Attorney General Eric Holder pledged that “it will not be our last.”

In a speech to the National Urban League in Philadelphia, Holder called the Voting Rights Act “the cornerstone of modern civil rights law” and said that “we cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve.”

Texas Republicans suggested the administration effort was more about politics.

“This decision has nothing to do with protecting voting rights and everything to do with advancing a partisan political agenda,” Sen John Cornyn said after Holder’s speech.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted, “I’ll fight Obama’s effort to control our elections & I’ll fight against cheating at the ballot box.” Abbott is running for governor.

The Supreme Court, on June 25, threw out the most powerful part of the Voting Rights Act, whose enactment in 1965 marked a major turning point in black Americans’ struggle for equal rights and political power.

Holder said the first Justice Department move would be to ask a federal court in San Antonio to require advance approval for voting changes in Texas, a state riven with political battles, from redistricting to voter ID requirements.

“Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected,” Holder said.

The Justice Department is asking that a preapproval requirement in Texas apply for 10 years and “beyond 10 years in the event of further discriminatory acts,” the department said in a court filing in San Antonio.

The separate provision of the Voting Rights Act that Holder is invoking may be a difficult tool for the Obama administration to use.

A handful of jurisdictions have been subjected to advance approval of election changes through the Civil Rights Act provision it is relying on, but a court first must find that a state or local government engaged in intentional discrimination under the Constitution’s 14th or 15th Amendments, or the jurisdiction has to admit to discrimination. Unlike in other parts of the voting law, the discriminatory effect of an action is not enough to trigger the so-called bail-in provision.

In the Texas case, the department is not directly intervening but is filing what’s known as a statement of interest in support of private groups that have filed suit.

“The fact that intervention in Texas is the Department of Justice’s first action to protect voting rights” following the Supreme Court decision “speaks volumes about the seriousness of Texas’ actions,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat from San Antonio and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which is a plaintiff in the San Antonio case.

North Carolina may become another target for the administration’s initiative.

On Wednesday, the Republican-dominated North Carolina Senate gave preliminary approval to sweeping election law changes, including a requirement that voters present photo Identification at the polls and a shortening of early voting by a week.

In Texas, Holder said, there is a history of “pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities.”

Based on evidence of intentional racial discrimination presented last year in a redistricting case, “we believe that the state of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices,” said Holder.

In its filing in San Antonio, the Justice Department said that “in every redistricting cycle since 1970, courts have similarly found that one or more of Texas’ statewide redistricting plans violated the voting guarantees of the Constitution or provisions of the Voting Rights Act.”

A three-judge panel in San Antonio has been looking at Texas voting maps for state and congressional redistricting since 2011, when the court threw out boundaries drawn by a then-GOP supermajority in the statehouse.

An ensuing legal battle between the state and a coalition of minority rights groups upset the 2012 elections in Texas, delaying party primaries that ultimately used temporary maps drawn by the court.

Under the direction of GOP Gov. Rick Perry last month, the Legislature ratified those interim maps as permanent over the objection of Democrats, who still contend the maps are biased and underrepresent minorities.

On Thursday, Perry called the Obama administration’s actions an “end-run around the Supreme Court.”

Last year, a federal court in Washington, D.C., found that Texas lawmakers had intentionally discriminated against minorities in drawing political maps and that the state’s voter ID law would disenfranchise minority voters. But the Supreme Court decision throwing out part of the Voting Rights Act removed the power of that court to stop those measures from going into effect.

Minority groups asked the three-judge panel in San Antonio last month to adopt the findings of the District of Columbia court and require Texas to submit all proposed voting-law changes for prior court review. Holder’s announcement places the Justice Department on the San Antonio minority groups’ side.

Last month, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the part of the Voting Rights Act under which all or parts of 15 mainly Southern states had been required to submit all voting changes for approval from Washington before they could take effect.

The decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said it was no longer fair to subject those jurisdictions to strict federal monitoring based on data that was at least 40 years old. Such extraordinary intrusion on state power to conduct elections could be justified only by current conditions, Roberts said.

“There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions,” the chief justice said.


Collins reported from Philadelphia. AP writers Chris Tomlinson and Paul Weber in Austin, Texas, Mark Sherman in Washington and Michael Biesecker in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this story.