Schumer Floor Remarks On The Passing Of Civil Rights Icon Congressman John Lewis And The Work That Still Needs To Be DoneJuly 20, 2020
Washington, D.C.—Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) today spoke on the Senate floor, commemorating the life of civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis and discussing the ongoing fight for racial equality and justice. Below are Senator Schumer’s remarks, which can also be viewed here:
On Friday, July 17, after six decades as one of our nation’s most preeminent civil rights leaders, Congressman John Lewis, the “Conscience of Congress,” passed away at the age of 80.
His trials and tribulations, and ultimately his triumphs, are well known to us all. At the ripe old age of 25, he led thousands of marchers across a bridge in Alabama, risking their lives for their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote, and in so doing, shook the conscience of a nation and hastened the demise of Jim Crow. On that fateful Sunday, battered and bruised, his head dizzy and bleeding from the policeman’s rod, John Lewis found the courage and the strength to reach the other side of that bridge.
And he never stopped marching.
From the Freedom Rides to Selma, from his leadership of the SNCC to his four decades in Congress, John Lewis never stopped marching.
His actions as a young man helped change the trajectory of a nation and brought about the Voting Rights Act, and then John Lewis went to Congress and renewed that law again and again. He sat-in against segregation at lunch counters in the Jim Crow south, and over forty years later, led another sit-in on the House floor against gun violence. He spoke out for marriage equality long before it was popular. He challenged those who walked the corridors of power and then trod those corridors himself to bring quality health care, fair wages, and social justice to Georgians and Americans everywhere.
It is one thing, inflamed with the passion of youth, to join in brave endeavors and challenge the status quo. And it’s a good thing. But it’s even beyond to sustain that activism and vision and efforts and – yes, that “good trouble” he talked about getting into – over the steady and persistent dedication of a lifetime.
But that’s who John Lewis was, deep in his soul: a man on a mission, who forcefully, but gently, led us all to do more and do better; who loved his country so much that he risked his life, and then spent his life, trying to change it.
We are an imperfect nation, for sure, but we have a tremendous ability to reinvent ourselves. The story of America is one of constant renewal. But that renewal has never been preordained. It is because Americans have pushed and prodded, used their voices and their votes, to force our country to change, and, over time, move ever closer to our highest ideals.
In the story of America, there are certain heroes whose moral clarity shone out like a beacon for others to follow. North Stars who have inspired their fellow Americans to join them in the glorious work of bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice. John Lewis was one of those special heroes.
He paved the road, and lit the path, and pointed the way towards other bridges for us to cross. It wasn’t by always being the loudest voice or the most intemperate; he led by the moral force of his example. Whether he would admit it or not, he inspired millions.
At President Obama’s inauguration, John asked the new president to sign a commemorative photo of the event. President Obama simply wrote: “Because of you, John.” I don’t know how many people must have said that over the years: “Because of you, John.”
And I could never guess at the number who didn’t even know to say it, but whose lives were forever altered, whose dignity and freedom was made whole…because of you, John. As a new generation of young people lift up their voices to proclaim “Black Lives Matter,” to fight for the Justice in Policing Act, the memory and legacy of John Lewis lives on in each and every one of them.
There are very few people who have truly changed the world for the better. John Lewis is one of them. His life is a reminder of all that is best in us. And all that we are capable of doing that best. As we mourn his loss, I’d ask my fellow Americans, including my colleagues in this body, to take up his mission.
Many of the old enemies John faced down have not yet been vanquished. Racial disparities persist and gnaw at the fabric of our democracy. So does the police violence that met a young John Lewis and thousands of law-abiding Americans on that bridge over fifty years ago. The bridge he crossed is still named for the Confederate officer and not the man who led a righteous movement for equality. The law he nearly died for has been gutted by the Supreme Court, Congress has the power to restore it, but only one political party seems interested in doing so.
At the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma, Congressman Lewis acknowledge that his mission was not yet complete: “There is still work left to be done,” he said. “We must use this moment to recommit ourselves to finish the work.” He told us to: “get out there and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America.”
As we confront our turbulent present: a pernicious disease, vast economic hardship and inequality, the ancient evil of racial injustice—the loss of John Lewis feels even more devastating, and leaves many searching for answers. But John Lewis has already pointed the way. “There is still work left to be done,” he said. “Finish the work. Get out there. Push and pull until we redeem the soul of America.”
May he forever rest in peace.