Longtime civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia beseeched Arkansans on Sunday to vote this fall -- and, specifically, to vote for congressional candidate Clarke Tucker.
"We've come a long way; the state has made tremendous progress," said Lewis, his voice rising in a packed auditorium at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. "There are forces in Washington and other parts of America that want to take us back. We've come too far, made too much progress, and we're not going back."
Tucker, a Democrat, will face incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. French Hill and Libertarian candidate Joe Swafford in the Nov. 6 election for Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District seat.
Lewis, whose record in civil rights advocacy includes being arrested more than 40 times during peaceful voting-rights protests in the 1960s and speaking alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in 1963, implored the crowd not only to vote, but to encourage others to vote as well.
"When you see something that's not fair, that's not right, you have an obligation to do something," Lewis said. "You won't be beaten again. You won't go to jail or be arrested for voting or attempting to vote. I plead with you, go to the polls."
While telling the crowd about growing up in Alabama and the chickens he raised, Lewis said he always wanted to be a preacher and that he used to practice sermons on chickens.
"They never did say 'Amen,' but I'm convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to in the '40s and the '50s could listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today," he said. "And some of those chickens are just more productive."
The stop at Philander Smith College was Lewis's last on a day of campaigning for Tucker at St. John Baptist Church and Second Baptist Church on John Barrow Road.
"We are going forward," said Lewis, who is in his 15th term representing Georgia's 5th District. "We are one people, we are one family. We all live in one house. The American house."
At first glance, Lewis and Tucker, who met earlier this year in Washington D.C., may seem an unlikely pair -- one tall, one shorter, one bald and the other with a full head of hair. Ideologically, however, Tucker said they often agree.
"Now, I didn't grow up the same way this young man grew up," Lewis told the crowd Sunday, laughing. "I grew up on the other side of the tracks. ... But we have to save our country, save it for our children and those unborn. I'm coming here with everything I have to support Clarke Tucker. We need his voice; we need his leadership. He will make Arkansas proud."
Tucker, too, said the nation was in need of a change when he stepped up to the microphone after Lewis's loudly applauded exit. The decision to run for Congress was a difficult one, Tucker said, especially considering the 37-year-old's young family.
"When you realize that it's not about you, it's about everyone in this room and everyone in Arkansas, you have to run," Tucker said. "We are at a crossroads for the soul of our country."
Though only 79 days remained until the election, Tucker took a back seat at the rally, speaking only briefly at the end of the event and even forgetting to ask attendees to vote for him during his speech.
Tucker said the timing of Lewis's visit was significant to him, as it came one year to the week after he was diagnosed with cancer. Tucker, who has since gone into remission, said the experience actualized his concern over the dismantling of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2017.
"The notion of having access to care with pre-existing conditions ... became much less abstract to our family," Tucker said. "Praise be to God -- and also good health care -- today I can say I am cancer-free."
The rally on the Philander Smith campus drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 people, among them local legislators, community members and civil rights leaders like Elizabeth Eckford, a member of the Little Rock Nine.
The crowd became so large that it filled the room, which had been prepared for approximately 250 people, and flowed out onto the nearby walkway.
Arkansas Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said after the rally that Lewis's endorsement was both beneficial for Arkansas and for Tucker's campaign.
"It's the most phenomenal thing that's happened to us in a while," she said. "Anyone who knows John Lewis respects him, and I think it really speaks well of Clarke that someone like John Lewis would stand up and say those things."
The crowd lurched after Lewis as the event ended -- scores of people wanting a photo, a hug or an autograph -- but state Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, said he just wanted to see an old friend.
"I met John in 1961," Walker said. "We met during the civil rights movement, and we've been friends ever since."
Walker, with his granddaughter in a pink dress holding his hand, said Lewis hadn't changed much since then.
Paulina Webber, a Parkview High School student, stood expectantly outside of the building waiting for Lewis to emerge after the rally concluded.
"I came to hear him speak, and maybe get a picture with him, but that doesn't seem likely," she said, gesturing to the mounting crowds around her. "I never knew he'd been arrested over 40 times. And people can vote now but don't want to? That doesn't make any sense."
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., greets Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, after Lewis spoke Sunday at Philander Smith College in Little Rock.
Metro on 08/20/2018
Print Headline: Icon of civil rights visits Arkansas, campaigns for Democrat