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Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis Spent Their Golden Years Fighting for Us Because They Didn’t See Any Other Choice

8 minute read
Stephanie Zacharek is the film critic at TIME. She is the recipient of a Newswomen's Club of New York award, and was a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

If you believe the advertising, retirement isn’t just a twinkling star in the crown of the American dream but a God-given human right. The aging population is a renewable resource, ever ready to be targeted by pharmaceutical companies or financial-planning establishments with ads showing gray-haired but still unquestionably vital over-60s enjoying the golf course, racing around with the grandkids, or coupled off, with the smug dignity of mated swans, as they stroll along some enchanted-looking beach.

The subtext of this advertising language is that retirement is for anyone who has worked hard, or at least anyone who can afford it financially. But what about those who can’t afford to quit for other reasons? Both Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at 87 on September 18, and John Lewis, who died at 80 on July 17, fought their way out of the repressiveness of the 1950s, only to learn that the fight would grow more intense, rather than less, as they aged. At a point where they might have been spending time with their children or great-grandchildren—or traveling, or kicking back in the countryside with their cats and chickens, or going to the opera whenever they pleased—they kept going, even through periods of illness, their sight fixed on an insidious creeping force: an administration and its enablers who believe that a return to what they see as the calm, orderly prosperity of the ’50s is not only possible, but also desirable.

The 1950s were a great time—for white people, especially men. After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1959, tying for first in her class, Ginsburg famously had trouble landing a job, unlike most of her male counterparts. “A Jew, a woman, and a mother, that was a bit much,” she once said, reflecting on that period in her life. “Three strikes put me out of the game.” Employers, and society at large, were systematically dismissive of women, and in particular someone as pathbreaking as Ginsburg.

In the segregated South, Black citizens were prohibited from sitting at the same lunch counter with white people, from using the same restrooms or entrances to buildings, from drinking at the same water fountains. White people could justify these restrictions as small ones, but they were foundational: They were designed to dehumanize. This was, of course, in addition to routine, often murderous violence from white mobs and law enforcement alike.

Read More: John Lewis Gave the Next Generation of Activists Our Marching Orders. Let’s Make Him Proud

John Lewis was inspired to join the Civil Rights Movement by the lynching of 15-year-old Emmett Till, in 1955—Lewis and Till were roughly the same age. Lewis endured brutal beatings at the hands of police, all while participating in what were unequivocally nonviolent protests. He was arrested 40 times in the 1960s. (He would be arrested 5 more during his time as a congressman.) The actions of Lewis and his brothers and sisters in the movement, of all races—the 20th century’s ultimate patriots—forced the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 into being.

But in 2013 the Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act by freeing nine states, most of them in the South, to change their election laws without federal approval or oversight. The resulting changes turned the clock back on some of the gains the movement had fought so hard to achieve. Lewis felt the blow, but kept fighting for voters’ rights until the end of his life. And here, the work of Congressman Lewis and Justice Ginsburg converged, an affirmation of their entwined values: Ginsburg, along with Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, opposed the dismantling of the act. Her dissent included this blunt and memorably evocative statement: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Read More: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lost Her Battle to Save Voting Rights. Here’s How We Can Take Up the Fight and Honor Her Legacy

Lewis was serving his 17th term in the House of Representatives when he died of pancreatic cancer. Ginsburg had suffered various health problems through the years, including several bouts with cancer, but she always came back—she seemed unstoppable, even if, in our hearts, we knew the reality. Both left us even as freedoms we thought we’d won for good—women’s reproductive rights and the right of every American to vote, to name just two—veer precariously close to dissolution. Meanwhile, without irony, Donald Trump has waxed stubbily poetic about his admiration for the 1950s as the last time America was truly great. In one famous tweet, he professed his allegiance to “the Suburban Housewives of America,” warning them that a Biden presidency will mean the end of “your neighborhood and your American Dream.” His bizarre fantasy of ‘50s Americana doesn’t even acknowledge the best aspects of the era—for instance, the way Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, sought to preserve the social safety net by expanding Social Security and increasing the minimum wage. Trump’s view of history is puny; his only goal is unchallenged power, and his supporters, pious and greedy, follow him.

Neither Ginsburg nor Lewis, public servants to the core, could or would retire in this landscape. In the waning years of Obama’s second term there were liberals who argued that it was Ginsburg’s civic duty to retire while he was still in office, to preserve that liberal seat on the court. Before and after the election of Trump, Ginsburg said repeatedly that she would serve as long as she was able. But even if she’d wanted to step down, in retrospect it’s unclear exactly when the right time would have been, given how, after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia in mid-February 2016, Mitch McConnell’s Senate blocked the appointment of Merrick Garland, claiming that putting a new Justice on the bench so close to the election was an affront to democracy. “Of course, the American people should have a say in the court’s direction,” McConnell said then. He’s not saying it now. In the new order, the rules can be changed with the shifting of the breeze, and there’s no such thing as honor.

Retirement isn’t a human right. But rest after a lifetime of fighting for the greater good—a lifetime of pushing against systems designed to keep certain people in their place, and to keep power in the hands of a privileged few—is the gift we never got to give Ginsburg and Lewis. Now, Ginsburg’s death in particular has occasioned some panicky, tremulous handwringing on the left, among pundits and ordinary citizens alike. Some have taken a little too much martyrlike delight in complaining that we’re absolutely screwed.

That’s an insult to everything these two individuals stood for, and to their tireless work. Ferocity is what we need now. The work done by Ginsburg and Lewis hasn’t ended, as long as we carry it forward—though moving ahead without them does expose an anguishing thought: If only they’d lived a few more months! They left before they could see this alarming four-year chapter to its end, whatever that might be. Now we wait to see how their life’s work will unfold in the next one.

Those of us who celebrate Ginsburg and Lewis for all they accomplished keep reassuring ourselves how much they loved their work; we have decided on their behalf that it didn’t matter that they couldn’t retire. Even in the midst of their recurring serious illnesses, they always made it clear they couldn’t wait to get back to work. But maybe they couldn’t wait because they knew they couldn’t wait. Just as they might have availed themselves of the delicious freedom of slowing down, they saw, heading toward us like a fireball, a return of the suppressive dynamics they’d fought since the ’50s. Instead of dodging the flames, they stared them down. They could have spent their golden years on themselves. Instead, they gave them to us.

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