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In 1965, John Lewis was brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers as he led a march advocating for the protection of Black Americans’ right to vote—an event that helped lead to the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In his gripping eulogy to Lewis at the late lawmaker’s memorial service Thursday, former President Barack Obama condemned the modern-era restrictions on voting rights that have undermined Lewis’ legacy.
“We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar to be able to cast a ballot,” Obama said, raising his voice over the applause that rang out from Ebenezer Baptist Church, “but even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision—even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick.”
Obama applauded President George W. Bush for signing a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 and President Bill Clinton for signing a law making it easier for people to register to vote. “But once the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act,” he said, referring to conservative justices’ decision in 2013 to allow states with a history of discrimination to change voting laws without federal approval, “some state legislators unleashed a flood of laws designed specifically to make voting harder—especially, by the way, state legislators where there’s a lot minority turnout.”
And the former president went further, calling on lawmakers to eliminate the filibuster (“another Jim Crow relic”), enact automatic voter registration, enfranchise former inmates, make Election Day a national holiday, expand early voting, end gerrymandering, and grant congressional representation to Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. He also urged every eligible citizen to exercise their right to vote and praised the young protesters who have taken to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s killing—activism he sees as a crucial extension of Lewis’ legacy.
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