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John Lewis, future congressman, after having his skull fractured
by police in a protest in Selma, Alabama, March 1965.
In May of 1961, having graduated the previous year from Harvard Law School, Antonin Scalia was nearing the end of a year of traveling in Europe with his new wife. The same month, John Lewis and 12 other Freedom Riders, seven white and six black, were traveling on a Greyhound bus and a Trailways bus, headed South to protest segregated public transportation and test a fresh Supreme Court decision banning the practice. In Rock Hill, South Carolina, he and two other Freedom Riders got the first beating of their trip after leaving the bus to use public restrooms.

In Anniston, Alabama, the Trailways bus was attacked by a Ku Klux Klan mob, and firebombed after the doors were jammed. In Birmingham, Lewis and the nine other Greyhound Freedom Riders were arrested there and held overnight. President Kennedy arm-twisted the governor into providing a safe-conduct escort to take the riders from Birmingham to Montgomery, but when they arrived, the escort vanished and a mob appeared. As one of the riders, James Zwerg, stepped off the bus, someone shouted "Kill the nigger-loving son of a bitch!" With clubs and fists they attacked Zwerg, Lewis and other riders, as well as reporters and photographers. The cops, many of them Klansmen or sympathizers, did not show up for 20 minutes.

Three years later in 1964, now head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis coordinated Freedom Summer, the project in Mississippi where several hundred of us registered black voters. I was fortunate to have two training sessions led by Lewis, who was beaten and arrested twice that summer.

The next year, in March 1965, Lewis had his skull fractured by cops blocking a protest march over the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

By the time he was 25 years old, Lewis had suffered more than 40 arrests and a dozen beatings, some of them savage. The man displayed his courage again and again and again in the struggle to defeat Jim Crow.

John Lewis and James Zwerg, Freedom Riders after being beaten by Klansmen in Montgomery, Alabama, in May 1961.
John Lewis and James Zwerg, Freedom Riders,
after being beaten by Klansmen in
 Montgomery, Alabama, in May 1961.
One of the key pieces of legislation to accomplish that, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was introduced by Lyndon Baines Johnson while Lewis was still recovering from the Selma beating. His head still bandaged, Lewis watched the speech on television with Martin Luther King, Jr.

That law didn't immediately end attacks on voters' rights. States or jurisdictions within states covered by the law continued to innovate new discriminatory measures whenever the federal government, either the courts or the Department of Justice, knocked down the latest effort to keep blacks, or Latinos and American Indians from exercising their fundamental right to vote. Under Section 5 of the law, the government didn't have to wait until after a discriminatory law was in place before taking action. The provision instead requires covered jurisdictions to clear any changes in the voting process in advance. Hundreds of changes have been blocked or altered under the provision.

Please continue reading about voting rights and John Lewis below the fold.

That's not just history. Last year, voter discrimination in Texas, Florida and South Carolina was blocked by the authority Congress approved in 1965 and has renewed four times since. The last time was 2006, when the Senate voted to do so unanimously and the House overwhelmingly after 10 months of review and 21 hearings.

Congressman John Lewis speaking on Politics Nation with Al Sharpton, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2012.
Congressman John Lewis speaking on
PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton,
Thursday, Feb. 27, 2012.
Antonin Scalia spit on the Voting Rights Act Wednesday, spit on voters protected by the law, spit on the struggle won by John Lewis and other courageous men and women at great cost, sometimes their very lives. Scalia labeled Section 5 "the perpetuation of racial entitlement." And he suggested that those senators and representatives who favored renewing the act in 2006 didn't really mean to, but only did so because they would not gain politically from voting against it.

John Lewis, since 1987 a U.S. congressman from my birth state of Georgia, wasn't the only person who gasped upon hearing that. But his words, based on his experience, carry more weight than those of most:

“It was unreal, unbelievable, almost shocking, for a member of the court to use certain language.” [...]

“It is an affront to all of what the civil rights movement stood for, what people died for, what people bled for, and those of us who marched across that bridge 48 years ago, we didn’t march for some racial entitlement,” he said. “We wanted to open up the political process, and let all of the people come in, and it didn’t matter whether they were black or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American.” [...]

[He called] the right to vote “precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent instrument that we have in a democratic society. And if the courts come to that point where they declare this section, section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, unconstitutional, it would be a dagger in the heart of the democratic process.”

John Lewis has always been a gracious, warm, open-hearted man. In 2009, one of the men who was part of the mob who beat Lewis in Rock Hill in 1961 apologized. Lewis forgave him with a smile. I am certain that if Scalia were to apologize for his remarks, Lewis would forgive him, too.

But if Scalia and the Supreme Court choose to gut the Voting Rights Act by rejecting Section 5, who can forgive that?

John Lewis beaten in Selma, March 1965.
John Lewis beaten in Selma, Alabama, March 1965.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Thu Feb 28, 2013 at 02:55 PM PST.

Also republished by Kos Georgia, Barriers and Bridges, and Daily Kos.

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