Debo P. Adegbile, WilmerHale partner and co-chair of the firm’s Anti-Discrimination Practice, discussed the life, importance and legacy of Rep. John Lewis on the Deep Background podcast hosted by Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman.
“When I think of John Lewis, what I think of first is his exhortation to his fellow Americans that you have to be prepared to put yourself in the way to achieve justice,” Mr. Adegbile said of the late congressman who died at age 80 on July 17, 2020, several months after receiving a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
“He is literally somebody who, from the time he was a teenager until his final days, was prepared to advance the cause of the disenfranchised by literally putting himself on the frontlines of the public conversation, demonstrations and issues of the day,” Mr. Adegbile said.
“He was 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,” Mr. Adegbile added. “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.”
Along with his WilmerHale roles, Mr. Adegbile is a commissioner on the US Commission on Civil Rights, appointed by President Obama. The 44th president also nominated him to head the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
Mr. Adegbile who, while at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argued two critical voting rights cases before the US Supreme Court, recalled Rep. Lewis attending both arguments which involved Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act which required jurisdictions with histories of voting rights discrimination to seek federal preclearance before changing voting requirements and processes.
In fact, the first time Rep. Lewis attended arguments at the Court during his congressional career was for Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District #1 v Holder argued in April 2009. Rep, Lewis was also in the audience for the February 2013 arguments in Shelby County v Holder. The Court’s subsequent decisions in both cases weakened voting rights protections.
“He was there… to witness the defense of the statute that he had literally given blood for, and that he knew people who had died for,” Mr. Adegbile said of Rep. Lewis. “He wanted to be present. He wanted to bear witness, to see our government work, and to stand again on the front lines of the fight for equality.”