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John Lewis passes on, but his work abides

The death at age 80 of Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, an original Freedom Rider in Alabama and iconic champion of universal voting in the South, comes at the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement — and at a time when armed federal immigration officers are arresting protesters in the streets of Portland, Ore., against the wishes of local law-enforcement officials.

The combination underscores how the work of John Lewis goes on in many quarters, and why it must be continued in his much-mourned absence.

Mayor Wheeler of Portland has called on the federal Department of Homeland Security to withdraw its forces, contending that local law enforcement officials can cope with any violence. “Their presence is neither wanted nor is it helpful, and we’re asking them to leave,” he said. “In fact, we’re demanding that they leave.”

But Kenneth Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the department, replied: “We don’t have any plans to do that. When the violence recedes, then that is when we would look at that. This isn’t intended to be a permanent arrangement, but it will last as a long as the violence demands additional support to contend with.”

State officials, however, agreed with Wheeler. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a federal suit against Homeland Security on what critics saw as police-state intervention.

And so the work of John Lewis goes on it his absence. For all the fire and fierceness of his long pursuit of racial equality and justice, and his sense of urgency ever since he led SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in 1963, whenever I encountered him in covering the civil rights movement in the Deep South and in Washington, he was always in person a soft-spoken and courteous defender of his cause.

Old Democratic allies in Congress, led by House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, a close friend, have called on President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to pass pending extensions of voting rights laws and name them in Lewis’ honor.

Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts has called for swift passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore provisions of a 1965 act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. When President Trump tweeted a brief message of condolence, she said she wished he hadn’t bothered. “If you really want to honor the life of John Lewis,” she said on CNN, “you don’t do things like gutting the fair-housing laws. You don’t sow the seeds of division.”

Clyburn has also proposed that the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where Lewis suffered a fractured skull during the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” protest march across it, be renamed for Lewis, rather than after Pettus, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard.”

“Take his name off that bridge and replace it with a good man, John Lewis, the personification of the goodness of America, rather than to honor someone who disrespected individual freedom,” Clyburn said. It would be an appropriate twist to of the current rush to take down monuments to Confederate generals in old Dixie.

An online petition has already been signed by more than 450,000 backers, and many mourners flocked to a large mural in an Atlanta black business district leaving flowers and handwritten notes of appreciation in his memory.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing that can be said in the wake of the departure of John Lewis of Georgia is that his many words an actions in 80 years of selfless service are now deeply rooted in to a movement for racial justice that has spread far beyond the South, even as far as Portland.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. Email juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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