Opinion

OPINION | RICKEY BOOKER JR.: In battle for voting rights, follow Lewis’ advice to get in ‘good, necessary trouble’

The fight for voting rights marches on

When I look at the disarray our country is in, I often ponder what I can do to be a beacon of hope for those who are discouraged, uninspired, frustrated, depressed and led astray by politicians. I cannot help but think about the inspiration that the late Congressman John Lewis gave to so many with his words and actions. Lewis often stated: "My philosophy is very simple, when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, say something, do something, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble."

John Robert Lewis was born near Troy, Ala., in 1940. His parents, Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis were sharecroppers in rural Pike County, Ala. He attended segregated public schools in the Jim Crow South. As a young boy, he was inspired by civil rights activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and many others who helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott.

One of Lewis' most memorable moments was on March 7, 1965, when he joined more than 600 other marchers in an orderly, peaceful march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery. This march was in response to an event that happened a few weeks prior in Marion, Ala., when state troopers clubbed protesters and fatally shot an unarmed voting rights protester, Jimmy Lee Jackson, while he was protecting his mother from being struck by police.

Lewis' goal was to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to protest African Americans' basic right to vote. In Dallas County, African Americans made up more than half the population, while accounting for only 2 percent of registered voters. To stop marchers from crossing the bridge, Alabama state troopers charged the crowd, violently pushed them to the ground and brutally beat them with billy clubs. This day will forever be known as Bloody Sunday, which is just a snapshot of our nation's long history of suppressing the votes of those deemed unworthy.

As a Black man, I strive to follow in Lewis' footsteps. Others' plight is our plight. As I strive to raise awareness and inspire others to be concerned about the well-being of all in our community, I am motivated by the words of Lewis, words that deserve to be elevated at a time when, once again, the rights of minoritized groups are at grave risk.

In 2018, Lewis warned, "It's a very difficult time that we are going through in America and my greatest fear is that one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone." While this quote may have been viewed as irrelevant in 2018, it is fully relevant today as state legislatures pass laws to suppress votes, attack transgender people and limit women's right to body autonomy.

At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Lewis declared, "Too many people struggled and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote."

Despite the Republican Party's continued efforts to suppress votes, it is more important than ever for folks to fight for their right to vote. History has shown us that Black and brown people have been the targets of voter suppression for centuries. There is a perception and reality that our country is changing, demographically and ideologically. Over the last decade, research into voter suppression has shown it's not just affecting Black and brown people, it's also affecting college students, elderly people and low-income communities.

For example, in 2020 the Brennan Center for Justice found that the state of Texas allowed handgun permit holders to vote with their state-issued handgun ID, while college students were not permitted to vote with their state-issued college ID. The study further found that 80% of handgun permit holders were white, while more than half of the students in the University of Texas system were racial or ethnic minorities.

In April 2005, Republicans in Lewis' home state of Georgia passed no-excuse absentee voting. At that time, most absentee voters were registered Republicans. Fast forward to the November 2020 general election, when most Georgians who voted by absentee ballot were registered Democrats. Within a few months, the Republican-controlled legislature passed Senate Bill 202 which contained measures to restrict voting access. SB202 mandated that drop boxes would only be available inside polling locations during office hours and required all no-excuse absentee voters to provide a state-issued identification card, giving election officials more power to decide what ballots can be counted and which ones will not.

While I welcome debates about voting rules and standards, I think we should all be concerned when elected officials pass laws to placate to a base that has bought into a lie that more than 60 courts -- including the U.S. Supreme Court -- has deemed "without any merit."

For those who consider themselves good citizens, now is the time to "say something, do something, get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble."