Civil rights icon John Lewis rallied Southern University students Wednesday, then led about 50 of them to an early vote.
Lewis, the last living member of the civil rights era’s big six, described for about 250 Southern students such events as the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery to campaign for voting rights. Lewis and others were injured when attacked by police on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
He ended the speech asking the students to vote for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who is running for re-election in a tight race against Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge. Lewis is the Democratic congressman representing Atlanta.
“Some segments of society are counting you out already,” Lewis told the students. “Vote like you’ve never voted before.”
To music supplied by members of Southern’s band, Lewis led a contingent onto a Southern bus and drove to Baker, where the registrar of voters has a corner in an outpost of the Office of Motor Vehicles.
On the bus ride, elected officials reviewed the ballot, made recommendations for the constitutional amendments. Mostly, though, students quizzed Lewis about the civil rights era.
State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, in whose district the Baker early voting polling station is located, rode the bus with Lewis and led the procession into the tiny office. The Democrat, who as president pro tem of the Louisiana Senate is the second highest official in the upper chamber, cast her ballot first.
Mary C. Johnson was in the office on other business. She recognized Lewis immediately as he walked into the office.
“He used to have a lot more hair and he used to be a whole lot younger, but that’s him,” Johnson said.
Lewis was 17 when he joined the civil rights movement in the late 1950s. He came to prominence as the head of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC and pronounced ‘snick’). He sat at lunch counters to protest racial segregation and rode interstate buses as a Freedom Rider to test compliance of federal laws requiring interstate buses and facilities to be racially integrated. He also was involved in Mississippi Freedom Summer, an effort to register blacks to vote and was injured crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
Johnson had been preparing to leave but after reminiscing a moment or two with Lewis decided to go ahead and vote, adding that she remembered a time when she couldn’t. Leaning against her cane, the students let a registrar of voters’ employee lead Johnson to the front of the line.
Lewis tried to sit while waiting for the crowd he brought to finish voting. But he spent much of his time standing, shaking hands and taking photographs with admirers.
He’s done similar rallies in North Carolina, Arkansas and Florida. But, Lewis said, nothing was really planned or coordinated.
He has been friends with Landrieu’s parents since the 1970s when Moon Landrieu was mayor of New Orleans. And he knows Sen. Landrieu well.
Landrieu’s chief of staff, Don Cravins Jr., attended the rally, as did a number of local officials. Democratic State Rep. Ted James, of Baton Rouge, introduced Lewis at the rally and rode the bus along with state Rep. Regina Barrow, also a Baton Rouge Democrat, who helped the early voters get organized. She voted Monday in another rally involving Baton Rouge ministers escorting members of their congregations to early voting.