John Lewis’ legacy

Does a mix-up mistake matter?

John Lewis’ legacy

On the 17th July 2020, civil rights activist and US Congressman, John Lewis, died at the age of 80 following a six month battle with cancer. His political career saw him work both outside and within the government campaigning for social change, and his loss endeared an enormous show of support for his work and his achievements across the United States. Lewis helped lead the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma March, and has served in Congress for thirty three years.

However, two Republican senators, in social media commemoration posts, mistakenly posted images of the late congressman Elijah Cummings alongside comments meant to honour John Lewis. While apologies were later made for these embarrassing errors and the senators reaffirmed their respect and admiration for Lewis, the damage, some argued, was already done. 

Almost immediately, critics began to point out the racist undertones of confusing two black congressmen on Twitter. Some suggested that such a lack of care on the Republican senators’ behalf showed the pure tokenism of their commemoration tweets. 

However, some may argue instead that such mistakes are simply commonplace errors of little importance. After all, this was not the first time that the two congressmen had been confused, with Lewis even once joking in April 2019 that he was considering growing a beard to set him apart from his Maryland colleague. 

Furthermore, in June 2019, Fox News showed a clip of Lewis and identified him as Cummings, and in October 2019 CBS aired a segment about Lewis’s cancer battle and used a photo of Cummings. This could suggest that the two men genuinely do look quite alike and that they themselves found the issue humourous. 

On the other hand, this issue of confused identity occurs far beyond the political sphere. An ‘About Us’ poll on Twitter highlighted the stories of more than 400 people of colour who had been misidentified in places with a white majority, suggesting that non-white groups are often seen as a single, combined entity. This proves that the case of the congressmen is not a unique incident, and cannot, therefore, be simply regarded as an innocent mistake. 

Instead, it is as if the race of Lewis and Cummings became their sole defining characteristic, which suggests we need more education about each man’s place in history and more sensitivity towards how race played a role in each man’s story. 

So while we must continue to celebrate the work of such monumental figures as Elijah Cummings and John Lewis, we must bear in mind that their impact on the United States is not limited or defined solely by their race. We must strive to give each man the commemoration he deserves, free of micro-aggressive racial tendencies and free of tokenism.

Each man more than deserves to take his own place amongst the history books. 

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Alexandra Hart

Alexandra Hart Contributor

I'm a student from London with a mammoth passion for all things theatrical. My favourite things are reviews, fringe festivals and interval ice-creams!

Writing for Voice Mag has given me a platform to develop my journalism and artistic skills - the perfect excuse to attend even more arts events in my local area. When I'm dancing, acting or creating I feel like I finally have a purpose in life. I hope this will be the start of a journey fuelled by my passion, and, propelled by my enthusiasm, this is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing.

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