By Neil Blackmon
I wanted to share some thoughts on John Lewis, love, the power of the vote, and grief on this, the 57th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the 2nd since we lost John Lewis.
Over the weekend, looking at redistricting maps and thinking of prospective Voting Rights Act arguments for a VRA challenge to a NC map I may get involved in, I started thinking about how since Lewis died, we’ve seen a concentrated assault on voting rights the likes of which hasn’t occurred since 1965, when Lewis nearly laid down his life for liberty and the franchise on a bridge named for a Klansman in Selma, Alabama.
Lewis was 25 on Bloody Sunday, still so young, but already so accomplished.
When I was just over 30, a new, exhausted Dad and a young public defender, I met Lewis at a voting rights event in Atlanta. He’d accomplished more by 25 than I have now at 42 but back then, as I shook his hand and chatted with him awestruck, he thanked me for being a public defender, calling PD’s “the front lines of the civil rights struggle.” John Lewis saying thank you to me is an absurdity I’ll never get over.
Lewis, of course, lived the front lines of the civil rights struggle.
As he stood on that bridge in 1965 staring at state troopers and waving confederate battle flags on the other side, he had a backpack filled with 2 books, a toothbrush, an apple and an orange. He expected to be arrested. Instead, he ended the day with a fractured skull. All for his nonviolent advocacy that the promises of the Constitution should apply with equal force to Americans of color.
What happened in Selma was rightly viewed as an assault on not only democracy but the vision and meaning of America. The right to vote was essential to the founding vision of a more perfect union. As LBJ put it to Congress a week after Selma, even if US defeated every enemy, doubled its wealth, and conquered the stars, America will fail without equality and dignity for all. “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Change in America happens too often when the interests of the powerless converge with the interests of the powerful.
But it also occurs when persistent love and grace changes hearts and minds.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about love and what it means in 2022.
What does it mean to love? How should we love?
It has been a year of immense sorrow for me, mostly the product of self-inflicted mistakes but ones that have, for now, cost me the greatest personal love I’ve ever known and an irreplaceable friendship. But as I do the hard work to grow from my mistakes, I’m learning that the depth of my sadness is a testament to the degree of my love.
As the late bell hooks wrote, “to truly love is to be open to grief, to be touched by sorrow, even sorrow that is unending.”
Love is often defined as a noun, but in truth, it is a verb: an act of both intention and will. We choose to love. We don’t have to love. We show love through acts, both of care, kindness, compassion, and the values that inform our behavior. And when we fail, to be loving is to be accountable. Love also forgives, especially when someone we love or have loved is accountable, because forgiveness affirms truth-telling. And there can be no justice without the truth and no love without justice.
Lewis understood this.
He bucked fear, at immense personal cost, to use politics not as an end to a means but as a way to impose an ethic of love and hope, even for those who hated him, and to bring about justice and help the powerless attract the attention of the powerful.
In my faith, and there are corollaries in both the Jewish and Muslim faiths, we are commanded to “Love thy Neighbor.” This of course means being charitable to those less well off than you and being kind, but to Lewis, and I think to people of faith, it should also mean being forgiving, being merciful, and living with compassion.
Love, then, is inextricably linked to the pursuit of justice, of the full equality of all people, and we must love the most in times of despair and injustice.
As an election lawyer, I can tell you the bulk of these redistricting maps and new voting rights laws are restrictive, undermine Lewis’s legacy, and would not weather constitutional muster in a world where Shelby County v. Holder had been rightly decided and John Roberts had not decided that the stain and rain of racism in American life was gone simply because Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act gave Americans an umbrella.
The anniversary of Bloody Sunday should also awaken us to the political reality that there is, without question, a direct path from Selma not just to the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery or the shooting of Tamir Rice and acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer (because like in 1965, blackness is still something to be feared, even at 12 and 17) , but also to the recent rash of voting restrictions and the refusal of Congress to reauthorize or strengthen the Voting Rights Act. The faces and technologies of resistance to equality under the law have changed, but a revival of participatory democracy, smart lawyering, and a commitment to fight injustice wherever we see it is no less vital now than it was in 1965.
To suggest these laws are unfair and often unconstitutional, or to proclaim that racism in America still exists and laws like Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act are still necessary, isn’t to deny or intimate that progress hasn’t been made. It has, of course! Ask Ketanji Brown Jackson or Sonia Sotomayor if times have changed. Ask any number of American women working as a CEO or company executive if nothing has changed.
But our capacity to love means we always have the capacity to make America better. We can always build healthier, more empathetic communities.
With love, we can transform communities and relationships the same way we transform bridges named after Klansmen into national symbols of hope, justice, and redemption.
As we press forward in 2022, in a dark period of bitter partisanship, broken communities, and global conflict, please remember to love. Check on your friends. Return that phone call. Celebrate the people that illuminate you. Bring the older man living alone in the apartment nearby dinner. Be kind. Have empathy. Do good. Show grace. As Lewis reminds us, life is too short for cruelty and hate.