Noah Feldman: I want to begin with a reminder of just how central the career of Congressman John Lewis was to the development of civil rights and especially voting rights in the United States. He was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. He was one of the organizers of the March on Washington. He was one of the leaders of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches in 1965. On March 7 of that year, a day now known as Bloody Sunday, Lewis and other marchers were attacked by armed police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an event that helped spur Lyndon Johnson into signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When you think of his legacy, what elements stand out most for you in terms of his inspiration?
Debo Adegbile: When I think of John Lewis, I think first of his exhortation to his fellow Americans: that you have to be prepared to put yourself in the way to achieve justice. He was fearless, a fearless advocate for justice, and he was motivated by an inner sense of moral courage that made him unbowed even in the face of risks to his life and well-being. And that example of an unyielding commitment to the notion that America can be better tomorrow than it is today if we work at it is something that all of us should aspire to.
Feldman: There’s something particularly extraordinary about the way that John Lewis put his body in the way of harm.
Adegbile: It’s an example of moral courage that we should always return to, and that I believe future generations will return to. In so many ways we train people to be on the front lines. There are soldiers who are trained to be on the front lines. There is law enforcement that is trained to be on the front lines. These are the people we provide with weapons, and sometimes under the sanction of the flag or under state-organized authority they have the right to defend themselves with deadly force and take people’s lives. In contrast, the civil rights marchers and John Lewis, they had only the strength of their convictions and the understanding that they were on the right side of history. And they presented themselves without weapons, with only the force of their commitment to justice. And they did so in the face of brutal forces on the other side.
Feldman: Lewis was a deeply believing and committed Christian and had a calling to be a minister already when he was a boy. And trained then as a minister. Talk a little bit about how that kind of religious faith and religious center was so important to the moral message that he eventually brought to the country.
Adegbile: I do think that the religious grounding that John Lewis had was part of the transcendence with which he approached his life on earth. That is to say, he organized his life around the concept that [one is] willing to sacrifice [one’s] life if need be, because there is some moral imperative that is greater than the individual being. This is derived from many religious traditions, the sense of humanity, perhaps rising above the cause of the individual. I think it was part of this commitment that led him to understand that his work on earth was dedicated to being that of a servant. But he was in service of something that was bigger than his own individual needs and commitments. He was in service of the common humanity and dignity of all human beings. I think that was what made him willing to put himself in harm’s way—being prepared to give his body. That’s a deeply Christian idea. One that is then transmuted, I think, in our civil rights tradition into the idea of people for the Constitution and for the values of the Constitution and of equality and equal justice, being able to sacrifice their bodies.
When he gave speeches recalling his work and his march with the other brave nonviolent marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, John Lewis used to say, “I shed a little blood for the cause, and for voting rights. I shed a little blood on that bridge.”
Feldman: Let’s turn a little bit to the question of voting, which has been one of the central focuses of your career as a civil rights advocate. And which was, of course, so close to the center of Lewis’s career and life. When you think about the Voting Rights Act, what do you think its core promise was meant to be?
Adegbile: I regard the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as a national commitment to a minority inclusion principle in our democracy. That is to say that for the full sweep of American history, many people in our society were excluded from the most basic principle of a democracy, which is to participate in self-governance. And that exclusion happened on account of race and discrimination that was state sponsored and enforced by state authorities at the barrel of a gun and/or through mob violence.
What happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and was followed closely by President Lyndon Johnson’s speech before a joint session of Congress, it was a moment in which the gap between our promises of equal protection of the laws and the practices on the ground of exclusion and segregation was being intentionally narrowed in a way that would change the nation.
The Voting Rights Act was a national commitment that said, “We are going to use the power of the federal government … to elevate the voices of democratic participation in the polity. And to stand for a minority inclusion principle that we cannot turn back from.”
Feldman: The minority inclusion principle that you’re talking about ended up being embodied in different parts of the Voting Rights Act. But one of the most important components was a practical process called preclearance. According to which, if you’re in a part of the country with a demonstrated history of race-based voting exclusion, before you can change the way that you district and assign voters to different districts, which of course is crucial to how voting outcomes are produced, you had to go to the Department of Justice and get the Department of Justice to review your plan, and then very probably, you’d have to go to a court and get the court as well to have a look at that plan before you could make a change. That practice came under attack in a very important voting rights landmark case called Shelby County v. Holder that the Supreme Court decided in 2013. And you were one of the people who argued that case before the Supreme Court, while working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Tell us about what that experience was like. And then through that, maybe tell us how the case came out and what you feel about it.
Adegbile: Shelby County v. Holder, I believe, is rightfully regarded as one of the most significant civil rights cases of this generation. Unfortunately, and I will begin at the end, it stands in some ways for the proposition not only that a particularly effective piece of the Voting Rights Act has been rendered inoperable—the preclearance provision of which you spoke—but also for the proposition that there was a signal that the country was again in retreat and stepping away from the minority inclusion principle that had been so central to our march toward justice and our march toward freedom.
Essentially, there were two roads that were diverging as the court was presented with Shelby County. Should the improvement that we had seen from the time of 1965 until 2013, should that leave us in the position that there’s enough progress, and we can step away, or must we continue to follow consistent with the judgment of Congress, including a unanimous United States Senate that voted 98 to 0 in support of the reauthorization of the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act? Should we continue to do more, to do better to perfect the union?
As I walked in the courtroom to argue the Shelby County case, it was the second time that I had defended these provisions of the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court of the United States. The Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder case presented a very similar question. It’s my understanding that the first Supreme Court argument that John Lewis ever attended was the Northwest Austin case. He was there again on the day of the Shelby County argument to witness the defense of the statute that he literally had given blood for, and that people he knew had died for. He wanted to be present. He wanted to bear witness to see our government at work and to stand again on the front lines of the fight for equality.
And to be in the courtroom, it was a weighty responsibility. I said of the earlier case that it was humbling, exhilarating, and terrifying all at once. All of those emotions are coursing through your body as you rise to the podium, in some ways to try and speak what many people regard as a self-evident truth to power: that discrimination continues in America, and that voting discrimination continues. And that the protections that Congress had committed to over a long period of time remained important and were doing vital work. That was the self-evident truth.
In some ways you feel as if your argument and your presentation are trying to prove that the sun will rise tomorrow. It is that self-evident, and it was difficult to be there, and to see the extent to which even during the oral argument, the court was signaling that it was going to cast aside under our constitutional system, the judgment of the Congress. And I think we have seen on the backside what has happened in the wake of Shelby County, that is those things that were self-evident have proven to be true. That many are taking the signal that the federal government is in retreat from minority voter protection. And those who wish to win elections through nefarious means are trying to have their way.
Feldman: The day that the case came down I remember sitting at my computer, doing what I always do when the Supreme Court decides its big cases. They come down, I get them on the computer. I read them as fast as I humanly can. Then I sit down and I write something for my column about it. And my opening line that day was “The civil-rights era ended today.” I wonder, in retrospect, if I overstated the case, in your view?
Adegbile: I’m reminded of the work of Professor Alexander Keyssar, of the Harvard Kennedy School, who wrote an important book titled The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. One of the central tenets of The Right to Vote is that there is a dominant, and somewhat ubiquitous, understanding or theory out there that America and American democracy has been on a path of unidirectional progress. That is to say, that things always get better. We’re always improving, and things are always moving forward. What Keyssar, among other things, added to the conversation is that when you look at the story of voting in America, what you see is not a pattern of unidirectional progress, of a march that is ever forward. What you see is a history of ebbs and flows. Concerted efforts to push and expand the reach of the franchise, and then efforts that push back and try and limit the franchise.
I understood that Shelby County was a very disappointing and important mark on the course of civil rights and voting history, but would not be the final word. It would not be the end of the nation’s quest for civil rights, but was perhaps the end of a chapter that signaled that there were gathering clouds ahead and that there were difficult days ahead. But those of us who remain, like John Lewis, undaunted in the face of long odds, would continue to put our shoulder against the boulder and push for greater inclusion and to try and move the country forward again.
Feldman: When you think about what you can do going forward, what strikes you as the biggest challenges?
Adegbile: I think about the fight for educational opportunity and the inequities that we see both in K through 12 education and in higher education, and how important education is as being a tool in some sort of civic transcendence. It is a pathway to opportunity. I think, of course, about the issues of criminal justice and the relationship between minority communities and law enforcement across the nation. I think about the path that the nation has walked of increasingly militaristic policing tactics, but also the opportunity and the possibility that is there to revisit the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities, and all communities. I remain committed to the idea that there is a way to align our democratic institutions, where we are not fearing the differences that exist in our society but are regarding them as a strength. That we can commit to and lift up voices in service of the common idea that we share, that we are stronger together than we are when we curry divisiveness in the people.
John Lewis understood that he was able to be a catalyst for change. He was able to put himself on the front lines, but he was also able to recognize that there were generations of people who were coming behind him. And that their voices and contributions and ideas were no less valuable than what his contributions had been in his day.
And so, one of the ways that I have tried to carry forward the lessons of the civil rights movement is that piece of transcendence, that when people are coming together for collective aims, you should not feel that any leader or any one person has all the right ideas or has the single path to improve things. You have to make space for those who come from different places and at different times, to try and advance the ideal of perfecting the union.
This story has been edited from the original podcast.
Debo Adegbile ’91 is a partner at the law firm WilmerHale, which he joined after a long career with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Adegbile was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 2016. He is a member of Connecticut College’s Board of Trustees.
Deep Background is hosted by Harvard Law School professor and Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman. The podcast is produced by Pushkin Industries. bloomberg.com/feldman