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Honor John Lewis and pass voting-rights bill

Star Tribune

A 65-foot mural in Atlanta reflects the larger-than-life legacy of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil-rights icon who died of pancreatic cancer on Saturday.

In many places across the country, flags were flown at half-staff for the man who made “good trouble” advocating for a righteous cause. On Capitol Hill, Lewis’ congressional colleagues honored the Georgia Democrat on Monday, with lawmakers across party lines lining up to televise or tweet their condolences and respect. From the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Donald Trump called Lewis a “civil rights hero.” And soon, an announcement of funeral plans will further detail how Congress, and by extension the country, will pay homage to the life and legacy of the social-justice giant.

But beyond the remembrances, what his fellow lawmakers, the president, and everyday citizens shouldn’t forget is that Lewis didn’t rest on his well-deserved laurels but forever fought to advance them, and that his life’s work of advocating for equality is not complete.

To take another step, the Senate and Trump should support the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which the Democrat-controlled House passed in 2019.

The Senate, with Republicans in the majority, has failed to act on the bill. Trump hasn’t backed it either, and in fact at every turn seems to want to backtrack on the progress Lewis and the other giants of his generation fought so hard to achieve.

On Sunday, Trump cast doubt on whether he would accept the results of November’s election. In an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Trump said, “You don’t know until you see,” seeming to hold his options open on the efficacy of the election. His criticism has focused on mail-in voting — an election method he and his family, as well as several states, have used with no evidence of any significant meddling.

Particularly during a pandemic, where voters and poll workers may literally have to risk illness or even death in order to exercise their constitutional right, this common-sense solution should be available to all Americans.

And beyond the current coronavirus crisis, the state of voting rights is in a crisis itself, with persistent, pernicious efforts at disenfranchisement, especially toward people of color — a disgrace at any time, but especially now, amid nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide mourning for Lewis.

Many Democratic lawmakers have embraced the idea of renaming the voting-rights bill the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020. “That’s the way to do it,” Rep. James Clyburn, D.-S.C., said on CNN on Sunday. Clyburn, a Black lawmaker who has built upon the bravery of Lewis, added that “words may be powerful, but deeds are lasting.”

Powerful words from two previous presidents — one Republican, one Democrat — speak to the need for deeds to continue. Former President George W. Bush said in a statement that “America can best honor John’s memory by continuing his journey toward liberty and justice for all.”

America “is a constant work in progress,” former President Barack Obama said in a statement. “What gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further — to speak out for what’s right, to challenge an unjust status quo, and to imagine a better world.”

Thanks to Lewis, Obama concluded, “we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.”

America will not achieve its full promise unless it ensures voting rights. It should do so in a bill rightfully renamed for Lewis, which would truly honor a man who seemed to stand as tall as that banner in Atlanta.