Almost 50 years after John Lewis was beaten within inches of his life, the civil rights leader and Atlanta congressman delivered a stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention Thursday afternoon urging voters to re-elect President Barack Obama.
Lewis was met with applause as he told the story of his participation in the civil rights movement and the dramatic events around his beating on "Bloody Sunday" 1965 after a march in Selma, Ala., led by Martin Luther King Jr. The violence shocked the nation and spurred the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Now, Lewis said, voting rights are under attack again.
"I first came to this city [Charlotte, N.C.] in 1961, the year Barack Obama was born. I was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. We were on a bus ride from Washington to New Orleans trying to test a recent Supreme Court ruling that banned racial discrimination on buses crossing state lines and in the stations that served them. Here in Charlotte, a young African-American rider got off the bus and tried to get a shoe shine in a so-called white waiting room. He was arrested and taken to jail.
"On that same day, we continued on to Rock Hill, South Carolina, about 25 miles. From here, when my seatmate Albert Bigelow and I tried to enter a white waiting room, we were met by an angry mob that beat us and left us lying in a pool of blood. Some police officers came up and asked us whether we wanted to press charges. We said, 'No, we come in peace, love and nonviolence.' We said our struggle was not against individuals, but against unjust laws and customs. Our goal was true freedom for every American.
"Since then, America has made a lot of progress. We are a different society than we were in 1961. And in 2008, we showed the world the true promise of America when we elected President Barack Obama. A few years ago, a man from Rock Hill, inspired by President Obama's election, decided to come forward. He came to my office in Washington and said, 'I am one of the people who beat you. I want to apologize. Will you forgive me?' I said, 'I accept your apology.' He started crying. He gave me a hug. I hugged him back, and we both started crying. This man and I don't want to go back; we want to move forward.
"Brothers and sisters, do you want to go back? Or do you want to keep America moving forward? My dear friends, your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union. Not too long ago, people stood in unmovable lines. They had to pass a so-called literacy test, pay a poll tax. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. On another occasion, one was asked to count the jelly beans in a jar - all to keep them from casting their ballots.
"Today, it is unbelievable that there are Republican officials still trying to stop some people from voting. They are changing the rules, cutting polling hours and imposing requirements intended to suppress the vote. The Republican leader in the Pennsylvania House even bragged that his state's new voter ID law is 'gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state.' That's not right. That's not fair. That's not just.
"And similar efforts have been made in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina. I've seen this before. I've lived this before. Too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.
"And we have come too far together to ever turn back. So we must not be silent. We must stand up, speak up and speak out. We must march to the polls like never before. We must come together and exercise our sacred right. And together, on November 6, we will re-elect the man who will lead America forward: President Barack Obama."
Lewis was met with rousing applause several times throughout his speech, but perhaps most notably when he movingly recounted the meeting he had with one of the men that beat him, leaving scars that are still visible today. He also reiterated to the crowd that Democrats must unite and exercise their right to vote if they want to avoid another generation of disenfranchised African-Americans.