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This month marks the 57th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The peaceful demonstration for voting rights that was met with police violence galvanized young civil rights leaders to run for office, including the late Rep. John Lewis. Geoff Bennett reports on the legacy of that generation and a new era of lawmakers who are following a similar path.
This month marks the 57th anniversary of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The peaceful demonstration for voting rights, met with police violence, galvanized young civil rights leaders to run for office, including the late Congressman John Lewis.
Geoff Bennett reports on the legacy of that generation and a new era of lawmakers driven from protest to the halls of power.
Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO):
I will not take off my activist hat to be in Congress.
Congresswoman Cori Bush calls herself a politivist, part politician, part activist.
Rep. Cori Bush:
You need that outside game, which is the activist, and you need the inside game, being that person seated right here in Congress.
She arrived at the Capitol in 2021, an insurgent progressive, having ended the political dynasty that had represented her St. Louis district for over half-a-century.
The history-making win was long in the making for Bush, whose political ascent began in 2014, when her community became the epicenter of the fight against police violence.
Walk me through your journey from organizer to lawmaker, from protester to elected politician.
What was that like?
I had no idea about what even an activist was, but Michael Brown was killed.
The police killing of Michael Brown ignited nights of protests in Ferguson that Bush helped lead, sparking the Black Lives Matter movement and inspiring her and others to run for elected office.
Eddie Glaude Jr., Princeton University:
They're moving not only from direct action in the streets to actually trying to grab hold of the reins of power.
Eddie Glaude Jr. is the chair of the African American Studies Department at Princeton University. He says Bush follows a tradition dating back to the civil rights movement.
Historically, this hyphenate, this activist-politician role, how has it shown up over time and how has it evolved?
Eddie Glaude Jr.:
You had activists from across the wide spectrum of Black politics getting together to articulate a Black agenda. And the result was this extraordinary increase in the election of what we call BEOs, Black elected officials.
Activists worked to register African Americans to vote in the Jim Crow South and took that cause to Washington, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personally appealing to President Lyndon Johnson for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Martin Luther King III, Civil Rights Leader:
I also requested of the president that, as soon as the bill is signed, that, immediately, federal examiners would be placed in certain key counties where we have faced a great deal of resistance.
Young African Americans who had organized with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, and who campaigned alongside Dr. King for the Voting Rights Act, now turned from casting a ballot to getting their names on one, like Shirley Chisholm in 1968, the first Black woman elected to Congress and to run in a major presidential primary.
Shirley Chisholm, Former Presidential Candidate:
What's wrong with my running for president of this country?
And the late Congressman John Lewis, known for giving a speech at the March on Washington and who was famously beaten and bloodied by police in 1965 as he crossed Alabama's Edmund Pettus Bridge to peacefully demonstrate for voting rights, an incident Lewis marked every year until his death in 2020.
Rep. John Lewis (D-GA):
History reminds us that, on March 7, 1965, we loved America so dearly, we were ready to die for her.
Lewis took his fight to Congress.
Rep. John Lewis:
This bill is mean. It is base. It is downright low-down.
In 2016, he rallied dozens of Democrats to action after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, leading a sit-in on the House floor lasting some 25 hours.
We're calling on the leadership of the House to bring commonsense gun control legislation to the House floor.
Bush, currently serving her first term, says she shares Lewis' approach.
I pull from my toolbox as an organizer. What do you do? You put yourself on the line first.
This past August, some 11 million Americans were behind on rent and at risk of losing their homes, with the pandemic-related pause on evictions set to expire. Bush says she knew the feeling firsthand, as a single mom who had three times been evicted.
It was just like, OK, well, we didn't get it done, so it's time to go. I couldn't understand how human beings could allow that to happen.
She says she pulled from the toolbox a tactic of her role model, Shirley Chisholm, who was known for saying — quote — "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."
And we need the moratorium on evictions to happen today.
Bush slept on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for four nights, until the White house stepped in with a temporary extension of the evictions pause.
Returning to the steps now, she reflected on what it meant.
So, once the president decided to extend the eviction moratorium, did you feel vindicated?
Well, I don't know necessarily if vindicated is the word. I felt happy. I feel like my muscle grew a little, because it showed that, even though people say that you can't do anything, you can't move anything, you have no power, you have no say — it was unorthodox, I guess, what we did. It was — the people have to win.
Six years after the death of Michael Brown pushed Bush into the political arena, Generation Z is making its way into the halls of power, fueled by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020.
Chi Osse, New York City Council Member:
I was one of the individuals chanting Black Lives Matter on the streets of New York City, and that is one of the main reasons why I ran for office.
Twenty-three-year-old Chi Osse, now a New York City council member, said deciding to fight for change from the inside wasn't an easy choice.
Do you consider yourself to be an activist, or a politician, or some combination of both?
There are some interviews that I had within the second month of running for office, and I completely rejected this idea that I was a politician or wanting to be a politician, but I think that was a bit of denial. I am a politician. But I'm also an activist.
Osse too made history as the first openly queer person to represent his Brooklyn district, and the first from Gen Z. And while he draws from the contributions of icons like John Lewis and Shirley Chisholm, he says he's equally inspired by his queer predecessors and by the people around him.
Who in particular inspires me? My main answer to that is my generation. And that's something that really sparked and got me here.
It was the people that I was on the ground protesting with who were leading those protests, which were a lot of young people of color, young Black folks. And, of course, work was done before us to pave the way for us to do the work that we're doing now. But there's still so much that people were trying to do to hold us back, and we still broke through.
But for lawmakers like Osse and Bush, the question of translating the Black Lives Matter movement's success into law remains a challenge, which Glaude says is not new to this generation.
We often think of the country as kind of engaging in this kind of linear progression towards a more perfect union. And that's not quite true. It's always one step forward, two, three steps backwards.
If not enough people want to focus on it, you get to hear my mouth focus on it, because I am those people.
Responding to some criticism that protest tactics only distract from legislation, Bush says she knows her voters best.
The people of St. Louis elected me with a T-shirt on and with boots.
And says the failures of traditional politics are what brought her to Congress in the first place.
There is a situation happening in St. Louis that needs to be addressed that didn't happen overnight. But you have been here for a while, and you didn't use your power, your pin, or the purse to be able to affect that.
So, now I'm here. You built me. If you don't like how I'm doing it, you should have fixed it before Cori got here.
A new generation of activists in politics, taking lessons from leaders past and carving their own way towards change.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Geoff Bennett.
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Geoff Bennett is the chief Washington correspondent for PBS NewsHour. He is also a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC.
Tess Conciatori is a politics production assistant at PBS NewsHour.
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