A baton has been passed. It’s the one John Lewis didn’t realize he carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 – but one he clutched tighter, held higher and ran harder with in each of the 55 years since. When John left this earth on Friday evening, his leg in the relay was done – but the baton he cherished and so faithfully championed has been passed to each of us in the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus and to members of the New Jersey Legislative Latino Caucus as well.
I have had the privilege of engaging in very memorable discussions with John Lewis on America’s ongoing Civil Rights Movement and his vivid, concrete expectations for the full realization of liberty for the Beloved Community. His expectations concerning every Black elected official across the land was nothing less than ferocious protection of our legislative and societal progress toward racial equality. His vision demanded that we push on with the fervor and fortitude commensurate with the magnitude of our responsibility to finally give meaning to our pledge for “liberty and justice for all.”
The NJLBC accepts John Lewis’ baton with the humility and reverence it deserves. At a time when our nation is raw with repeated acts of racial violence and injustice, New Jersey’s Black and Latino Legislative Caucuses – and, more importantly, the communities we uphold – suffered a devastating defeat last week as we were denied our righteous seat on the panel charged with dispersing funds from New Jersey’s historic and unprecedented $9.9 billion emergency borrowing bill. To have minorities excluded from that table at the precise moment when America stands at destiny’s crossroad is incomprehensible and unconscionable.
But in Congressman Lewis’ name, our caucuses will continue to use every means necessary to drag New Jersey into a new era of inclusivity. We are hopeful our dialog with Senate President Sweeney will spur the Senate to follow the example of the Assembly and fast track a package of eight criminal justice reform bills into law for the governor’s signature. These bills will outlaw false 9-1-1 call intimidation and harassment, prohibit the use of chokeholds in police apprehensions and mandate a wide range of racial and cultural diversity training for law enforcement personnel.
The NJLBC stands in profound gratitude for how Congressman Lewis lived his life imbued with a faith not entombed in the pages of leather-bound bibles but rising resurrected into the fullness of the human heart. We vow to establish justice, redemption, healing and reconciliation throughout our state and across our wounded nation.
John Lewis fought the good fight and has finished the race. He kept the faith. Now it is our turn to “be bold, brave and courageous and find a way…to get in the way.”
State Sen. Ronald Rice, Democrat of Newark, is the longest-serving Black in the New Jersey Legislature and the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. He was elected to the New Jersey State Senate in 1986, the year John Lewis was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.