In his speech at the DNC tonight, Atlanta congressman John Lewis told a story about a beating he suffered, as a Freedom Rider, at the hands of a white mob in 1961. Lewis recalled that a few years ago, a man approached him, confessed that he had been one of the men who attacked him, and asked for forgiveness. At the end of the story, Lewis declared, “This man and I don’t want to go back. We don’t want to go back.” He then addressed the crowd directly. “Brothers and sisters, do you want to go back? Or do you want to keep America moving forward?” If it’s the latter, you have to vote for Obama.
The thrust of Lewis’s speech was not that the election of Mitt Romney would bring back widespread violence against African-Americans, but that an ongoing voter identification push by Republican officials hearkened back to the poll taxes and literacy tests of the pre–Civil Rights era. Nevertheless, that’s still kind of a provocative accusation. So when I happened to run into Lewis as he washed his hands in the men’s room — yes, I did feel bad about cornering a civil rights icon in the bathroom — I asked him to elaborate. Does he really think that Romney wants to take civil rights back to the 1960s?
“They didn’t say one word in Tampa last week about what Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures are saying about voter suppression, about voter ID,” he told me. “And it’s spreading. It’s not just a Southern thing. It’s spreading all across America. That would be a step backward. And we don’t want to go back there. We want a president that is going to lead.”
As he did in his speech, Lewis noted that Pennsylvania’s House Majority Leader Mike Turzai openly admitted that a voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” But then he stopped beating around the bush. “I think there’s a deliberate, systematic effort,” he told me, “to win or steal this election before it even takes place.”