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John Lewis Speech Makes Powerful Historical Link To Civil Rights Past

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Rep. John Lewis of Georgia waves to delegates before the start of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia waves to delegates before the start of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

WASHINGTON -- Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis brought a moving moment of history to the Democratic National Convention Thursday, linking a tragic past to the Democrats' message that it's time to keep moving forward.

Lewis, who was one of the original Freedom Riders, recounted how he was beaten in 1961 for trying to enter a whites-only waiting room, and how he and fellow rider Albert Bigelow declined to press charges against the perpetrators.

"We said our struggle was not against individuals, but against unjust laws and customs. Our goal was true freedom for every American," Lewis recalled.

After Barack Obama was elected president, the Georgia congressman said, one of the men, Elwin Wilson, was inspired to come forward.

"He came to my office in Washington and said, 'I am one of the people who beat you. I want to apologize. Will you forgive me?' I said, 'I accept your apology.' He started crying. He gave me a hug. I hugged him back, and we both started crying. This man and I don't want to go back; we want to move forward," said Lewis.

Lewis also connected that moment to the Democrats' battle against the voter ID laws being pushed by Republicans around the country, which Democrats argue amount to voter suppression. He compared the current push to the discriminatory literacy tests and poll taxes that were banned under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"Today it is unbelievable that there are Republican officials still trying to stop some people from voting," he said. "They are changing the rules, cutting polling hours and imposing requirements intended to suppress the vote. The Republican leader in the Pennsylvania House even bragged that his state's new voter ID law is 'gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state.' That's not right. That's not fair. That's not just."

He noted similar efforts in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina.

"I've seen this before. I've lived this before. Too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote," Lewis said. "We have come too far together to ever turn back. So we must not be silent. We must stand up, speak up and speak out. We must march to the polls like never before."

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