When John Lewis Became My Personal Hero

Remembering Congressman Lewis on the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

By Terry Ao Minnis

This year has been full of surprises and we still have five months to go. While we expected 2020 to be a roller coaster, with both the 2020 Census and the 2020 Presidential elections occurring in the same year, the global COVID-19 pandemic has created unimaginable chaos. And of course, 2020 saw the passing of civil rights luminaries who have paved the way for me to be able to do the work that I do.

At the same time, we look to the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) — a landmark civil rights bill that has played an integral part in my work. In fact, as I reflect upon the 55th anniversary and the passing of Congressman John Lewis, I am reminded of the first major legislative campaign that I worked on and how Congressman Lewis became my own personal hero during that effort.

To appreciate the content of his character in the fight for the VRA, I need to take you back sixteen years. In 2004, a small group of voting rights advocates at national civil rights organizations, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, began working together on reauthorizing certain provisions of the VRA which were to expire in 2006. The two primary provisions of focus were Section 5 (the preclearance provision) and Section 203 (the language assistance provision). Recognizing early that opponents to the reauthorization might try to drive a wedge between those primarily focused on language access and those primarily focused on the preclearance provision, we worked hand-in-hand together to develop a cohesive strategy and approach for both issues. From the early days of convenings to discuss the substance to later strategy sessions on how to legislatively achieve our goals, working within coalition was our only successful path forward.

My mandate was clear in this effort — ensure the reauthorization of Section 203 as one of the lead organizations working on this specific provision and to support our allies who were leading the reauthorization of Section 5. The true test of Section 203 moving forward came not during the floor vote of the VRA reauthorization bill, but rather during the House floor debate on the Science, State, Justice, Commerce, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2007. An amendment was offered that would have dictated that none of the funds allocated to the Department of Justice under the appropriation bill could be used to enforce Section 203. If this amendment passed, it would have neutralized the impact of Section 203 even if reauthorized.

It was during this debate when Congressman Lewis went from a national hero to one of my own personal heroes. His moving statements during this debate made clear that Section 203 was a civil rights issue and not just an “immigrant” issue. It helped propel us to victory.

“The right to vote is precious, almost sacred, and one of the most important blessings of our democracy. The Stearns amendment is an attack on the voting rights of millions of American citizens. It is a modern-day literacy test.

This is not about illegal immigration. These are American citizens we are talking about. If the Stearns amendment becomes law, what message are we sending to the Apache, to the Navajo Nation, to the Native Alaskan, to Vietnamese Americans, to Russian Jews, who are all citizens?

These are our neighbors. They are taxpayers. They are Americans. We should be opening up the process to each and every American. Let them come in and participate.

Instead, this amendment will return us to the dark past. I don’t think we want to go back as a Nation and as people.” — Congressman John Lewis

This experience with Congressman Lewis, in my early career, taught me so much about the importance of being a true partner, about striving to fulfill our organizational mission of building a fair and equitable society for all. Above all, at that moment he taught me about being a giving, kind, and caring person.

As we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Congressman Lewis, we should honor him by finally fixing the disastrous Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Congress needs to restore the VRA by passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA). The VRAA embodies Congressman Lewis — it not only rights the wrongs of the past (through an updated geographic formula), it forges an important and innovative path forward. Through practice-based preclearance, which targets the known practices policymakers have repeatedly used to silence growing minority electorates, we can remove discriminatory tactics in our voting system.

Congressman Lewis gave us all something momentous to strive for and someone great to aspire to be. As I reflect upon this 55th anniversary of the VRA, during these tumultuous times, I commit to continuing to fight the good fight. To get into “good trouble.” And to honor his legacy in my work and in my life.

Note: To learn more about what happened during the reauthorization of Section 203, read my article “When the Voting Rights Act Became Un-American: The Misguided Vilification of Section 203” in the Alabama Law Review.

Terry Ao Minnis is the senior director of voting and census programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

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Advancing Justice – AAJC

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AsianAmericans to participate in our democracy.