Honoring a life's mission

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

President Lyndon B. Johnson summoned John Lewis to a private meeting in the Oval Office on the morning of August 6, 1965. Later that day, Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law in a ceremony attended by Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other noted civil rights leaders.

First, though, Johnson wanted an introductory chat with Lewis, who months earlier led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, an event now known as Bloody Sunday. Lewis and nearly 600 peaceful marchers were attacked by state troopers, a scene that horrified the nation and pricked the conscience of many, including President Johnson.

This week marks the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Many, including President Barack Obama (above, delivering the eulogy at Congressman Lewis’s funeral last week) say the best way to honor Lewis is for government to uphold the voting rights he dedicated his life to fighting for and for citizens to exercise those rights.

In his memoir, Walking with the Wind, Lewis recalled his 20-minute chat with President Johnson, and how his tone and demeanor differed drastically from the one he adopted hours later when signing the bill.

“Johnson dominated the conversation, his legs propped on a chair, his hands folded back behind his head,” Lewis wrote.

“Near the end of the meeting the President leaned forward and said, ‘Now John, you’ve got to go back and get all those folks registered. You’ve got to go back and get those boys by the balls.’ ”

Later that afternoon, Johnson waxed far more eloquent.

“So, through this act, and its enforcement, an important instrument of freedom passes into the hands of millions of our citizens. But that instrument must be used. Presidents and Congresses, laws and lawsuits can open the doors to the polling places and open the doors to the wondrous rewards which await the wise use of the ballot.

“But only the individual Negro, and all others who have been denied the right to vote, can really walk through those doors, and can use that right, and can transform the vote into an instrument of justice and fulfillment,” Johnson said before signing the measure.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act that allowed the government to oversee state voting laws. The assault on the voting rights hasn’t stopped there. Several states have embarked on ambitious purges of voter rolls, adopted strict identification laws, and deliberately gerrymandered districts in attempts to dilute minority voting strength.

President Obama, speaking at John Lewis’s funeral last week, noted the tributes pouring in for the congressman, including renaming the 2019 Voting Rights Act that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year but remains stalled in the Senate. Naming platitudes are nice, Obama said, but measures that strengthen voter access are what’s truly needed. Lewis would have agreed. That was his life’s mission.

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Today in a minute

Back! NASA’s first U.S.-launched astronaut mission to space in nearly a decade splashed down successfully in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida on Sunday. This will be the first of at least six NASA voyages to the International Space Station planned for the SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft, Nat Geo's Nadia Drake reported. Astronaut Bob Behnken (pictured at left spacewalking outside the ISS) brought home tips on the spacecraft for his wife, fellow astronaut Megan McArthur, due to fly it in the spring. “I definitely have some advice about living inside of Dragon and where best to pack all your personal items,” Behnken said. Here are images from the spacecraft's first journey.

Old Havana’s savior: The historic section of Cuba’s capital was crumbling before Eusebio Leal got to it. The historian, who died last week, had brought sectors of his country together to preserve—but not smother—the centuries-old heart of the city. Hundreds of private businesses from elegant restaurant to art galleries that filled with tourists as tourist visits to the country soared, the Associated Press reported. “I’ve always spoken out against the mummification of the city,” Leal said in 2016. “It wouldn’t be wise to show off the past under glass.”

From ‘Wobblies’ to seekers of justice for George Floyd: American unionists a century ago raised their fists as a sign of force. So did anti-Nazi fighters in Germany, and those fighting fascism in Spain. At the 1968 Olympics, medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos did so in what was then known as the Black Power salute. And protesters are doing the same thing today on American streets. “Their message was the same,” writes historian James Stout for Nat Geo. “We can defeat tyranny when we stand together.”

Counterfeited history, coming down: They or their parents had helped in a bloody war. Their side wanted to keep millions of people enslaved. But a curious thing happened decades after the defeat of their treasonous side by U.S. forces. The postwar whites who wanted to keep subjugating Blacks erected monuments to the traitors. It was also about real estate, Andrew Lawler reports for Nat Geo. This year, amid nationwide protests for colorblind justice, most of the statues to racists and slaveholders along Richmond’s Monument Avenue have been taken down, and the mayor says the city now stands for tolerance and love.

Instagram photo of the day

The message: “I am Black and my life matters” is the message on Precious Edwards’s face shield at the Black excellence march in June in Brooklyn. Support has risen sharply in the United States for Black Lives Matter following the police killing of George Floyd. “Expressing that Black lives matter is not a political statement. It is a fundamental truth,” Kristin Roberts, McClatchy’s vice president of news, told her company’s journalists on Wednesday.

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The big takeaway

While we're on the subject of equality: Thirty years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed the world’s first declaration for equality of people with disabilities into law. The Americans with Disabilities Act followed a civil rights movement that redefined what had been considered medical conditions into an identity to be protected under non-discrimination laws. Bush had pledged to enact it in his campaign, and disability rights came to be seen as a bipartisan issue, Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever reports. Pictured above, a group called The Little People of America chant slogans during the first annual Disability Pride Parade on July 12, 2015 in New York City.

Overheard at Nat Geo

A sea (and C-suite) change: In 1888, 33 male explorers and scientists founded the National Geographic Society—the nonprofit arm of National Geographic. Today, Dr. Jill Tiefenthaler, an economist and former president of Colorado College, takes over as the organization’s first woman chief executive. She will lead the society’s global community of explorers, educators, and storytellers, and will carry out its mission of illuminating and protecting our world.

In a few words

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The last glimpse

Pioneer: More than 800 years ago, he invented programmable fountains, musical automations, and rudimentary robots. Some inventions were playthings for the wealthy, such as the peacock fountain (above left) or an elephant clock, where the driver (above right) hits the elephant’s head every half hour. Haven’t heard of Badi al-Zaman Abu al-Izz Ismail ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari? The brilliant engineer’s work, The Book of Knowledge, served as an instruction manual for how to build the machines and the mechanisms. Nat Geo’s History magazine profiles the inventor, born in what is now Turkey, who was part of a wave of trail-blazing Muslim thinkers and scientists.

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This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with Jen Tse selecting the photos. Thanks for reading.

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