To honor John Lewis' legacy, need to pass voting rights act: Rep. Karen Bass

Reps. Karen Bass and Val Demings appeared on ABC's "This Week."

July 19, 2020, 1:12 PM

To honor the life and legacy of civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., said on ABC's "This Week" Sunday that the Voting Rights Advancement Act should be passed.

"I know that if he was still with us, he would be leading that fight," Bass said of the Georgia congressman who died Friday.

"What we have to do is live up to his legacy. We need to continue that fight for social justice. And again, the first thing we need to do is to pass the voting rights act and get it signed," Bass told ABC's "This Week" Co-anchor Martha Raddatz.

Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., also a co-sponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, highlighted Lewis' career-long fight for voting rights and equality.

"John Lewis has left us a great roadmap. And if we can continue to be half of the servant fighting for social justice that John Lewis was, then we're going to be OK."

In December, House Democrats passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, which would restore certain key protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act against racial discrimination that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.

"I have said this before, and I will say it again. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy," Lewis said in a statement supporting the bill in 2019.

The Republican-led Senate has not picked up the bill for consideration.

Known as the "conscience of the U.S. Congress," Lewis spent over three decades in the House of Representatives after rising as a leader of the 1960s civil rights movement.

A central organizer of the 1961 Freedom Rides, Lewis went on to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), speaking at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the age of 23.

Two years later, in 1965, in what would become known as "Bloody Sunday," Lewis and hundreds of demonstrators in a march for voting rights were beaten by dozens of state troopers in Selma, Alabama. One of the troopers fractured Lewis' skull, scarring his head for the rest of his life.

The events in Selma shocked the country and led, in part, to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

PHOTO: In this March 7, 1965, file photo, state troopers swinging billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala. John Lewis, in the foreground, is being beaten by a state trooper. Lewis sustained a fractured skull.
In this March 7, 1965, file photo, state troopers swinging billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala. John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in the foreground, is being beaten by a state trooper. Lewis, a future U.S. Congressman sustained a fractured skull.
AP Photo, File

Asked by Raddatz about that legacy on "This Week," Demings, also a former police chief and officer in Orlando, Florida, remarked on how she saw the change Lewis' work helped enact first-hand when she made a pilgrimage to Selma with him in recent years.

"Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with John Lewis … I remember getting to the other side, and especially as a former law enforcement officer, and thinking about Bloody Sunday and how that day, John Lewis and others were basically tortured and beaten," said Demings. "But on this Sunday, we walked across, and the troopers were there -- very diverse group of troopers, I might add -- were there to welcome us and to make sure that we were OK."

Demings also said Lewis saw his own legacy "demonstrated every day" in more recent Black Lives Matter protests and marches against police brutality and for racial justice -- demonstrations which have drawn ongoing criticism from President Donald Trump.

In recent years, Lewis had an adversarial relationship with Trump, refusing to attend his inauguration over claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

The president fired back against Lewis days before his swearing-in writing in a tweet that the congressman "should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complain about the election results. All talk, talk talk -- no action of results. Sad!"

At the time, Lewis was one of the first high-ranking Democrats to allege Trump's presidency was illegitimate due to Russia's interference in the election.

The morning after Lewis' death, Bass took to Twitter and urged the president to abstain from saying anything about the civil rights icon.

"While the nation mourns the passing of a national hero, please say nothing. Please don't comment on the life of Congressman Lewis. … Please let us mourn in peace," Bass wrote.

Trump did offer condolences over Lewis' death hours later on Twitter, and issued a proclamation ordering all flags at half-staff through the end of the day to honor the congressman.

"I'm glad that the president's tweet was appropriate … but I think that we need to have the flags at half-mast until he is laid to rest. And I believe that his legacy will live on," Bass said.

ABC News' Benjamin Siu and Elizabeth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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