Over the past two months we have seen renewed energy to address systemic racism in this country. This is very good and I am ever-optimistic that we can make many small steps forward, and maybe even some larger ones. I sure wish it didn’t take some tragedy like the horrific death on May 25 of George Floyd to galvanize us to act. In just one small step, the AMS took part in #ShutDownSTEM day, and we are continuing work started that day. This is indeed small but we can at the very least begin by making changes in our own homes, the contexts we can control.
It seems like hits are coming at every turn. In my DC-based world, we are mourning the loss of a true leader in the fight to end systemic racism: Congressman John Lewis. I have been pondering for some time what I could possibly write here, to add to the conversation.
I’ll start with the congressional context in which Lewis worked. In total, there have been 162 African Americans who have served in the US Congress (this number is relative to the total of 12,348 who have served). Ten have served as US Senators and the rest in the House of Representatives (most as Representatives but a few as Delegates). The first three— Jefferson Franklin Long, Joseph Hayne Rainey and Hiram Rhodes Revels—served in the 41st Congress (1869-1871). Some sources only list Rainey and Revels; I am not sure why this is so, but it is probably because Revels was the first Senator and Rainey the first Representative. It is notable that Long served less than three months.
For about a decade following that beginning, the number of African Americans serving in Congress increased, it then decreased throughout the 1880s. From 1901 until 1929 the total number of African American House members sat at a dismal zero. In the Senate, the longest period without any African American members was an embarrassing 86 years (1881-1967). Since the mid-1950s these numbers have been more or less increasing, especially in the House. These trends align with other social movements in the country, working after the Civil War to first elevate but then quickly reverse this and instead to oppress African Americans. Our current Congress—the 116th running 2019-2021—began with the highest number of African American members ever at the start of a Congress: 57 (52 Representatives, 2 Delegates, and 3 Senators). Two of these are Republicans; the rest Democrats. Two giants from this group have died in the past year—Congressmen Elijah Cummings and John Lewis.
Congressman Long represented Georgia and it took over 100 years before Georgia elected another African American to the House; Representative Andrew Young won a seat in 1972. John Lewis came next for Georgia; he was first elected to serve in 1986. Lewis served continuously until his death on July 17. He won 17 consecutive elections to the House. Lots has been, and is being written about him. I needn’t add to that, except to tell a sort of personal story.
John Lewis has for a long time been a personal hero. One of the biggest honors of my life has been to be on stage with him. In 2017 both he and I received honorary doctorates from Bard College (did someone say “imposter syndrome?”). The day began with a brunch at Bard President Leon Botstein’s home. I met the congressman there, and he was extremely friendly and kept telling me it was such an honor to meet a mathematician. For the many hours that the commencement took, I sat next to him on the stage and from time to time he would make a comment about the speeches that were going on. He told me I should reach out to his staff in DC when I returned. I did, and soon thereafter had a meeting with his staff to talk about shared concerns, mostly about the importance of higher education, and elevating groups of people (African Americans, women, low income) through education. We also talked about funding for science, and about the tax on tuition that was then (late fall 2017) being introduced in Congress and how it would affect our undergraduate and graduate students. The Georgia district he represented is home to several colleges and universities:
- Morehouse College
- Spelman College
- Clark Atlanta University
- Morris Brown College
- Morehouse School of Medicine
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- Georgia State University
- Emory University
- Agnes Scott College
- Clayton State University
- Atlanta Metropolitan State College
Much work done in Congress happens through committees. Because Congressman Lewis didn’t serve on committees that overlapped much with AMS advocacy priorities, I didn’t have the opportunity to interact much with his office (in my work capacity here at AMS). I was impressed to find out that on his website he kept a list of his constituents who have received federal support for their work together with some general guidelines about how government awards work. This page was last updated in 2019 and includes active grants from the Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) and the NSF. I find it meaningful that these are posted, usefully and proudly, on his website (I have not seen another congressional member’s website that includes this information though acknowledge they probably exist).
What would he want us to do, and what can we do to celebrate his life? He would want us to vote. John Lewis was one of the lead advocates for voting rights this country has ever had. He highlighted this in his legislative work; in his view,
“the vote is the most powerful, non-violent tool we have in a democratic society.”
Many of you reading this are professors and, in that position, have the wonderful opportunity (dare I say responsibility?) to encourage your students to vote. Ask your students what percentage of students they think votes. I used to do this when I still taught and they always—and I mean always—gave an overestimate. In our last presidential election in 2016, just over 46% of 18- to 29-year-olds turned out to vote (this % is of the citizen population in this age range). A bright spot in voting patterns is that in 2016 young voters ages 18 to 29 turned out to vote in greater numbers when compared to 2012, with a reported turnout increase of 1.1% (and, this is the only age group with an increase in participation from 2012 to 2016). Another bright spot is that in recent mid-term elections we have seen an even bigger increase in voter turnout in this age group—from 20% in 2014 to 36% in 2081.
To honor his memory, I hope you will—if eligible—vote in November and encourage your students to do the same.