“Happy Pride Day. Enjoy this day. Celebrate the day. Celebrate our diversity. We are one people. We are one family. We are one house. We all live in the same house.”
— Rep. John Lewis
The momentous passing of civil rights icon and member of the U.S. House of Representatives John Lewis on July 17 signaled not only a tremendous loss for the African-American community, but the LGBTQ nation as well.
The youngest and last surviving member of the Big Six civil rights leaders, Lewis was a seminal force in the organization of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as well as the infamous Bloody Sunday of March 7, 1965, during which Lewis and an estimated crowd of 600 activists were beaten by state and local police at Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
A son of Alabama sharecroppers whose aspirations of becoming a preacher famously began with the family’s chickens as his captive audience, Lewis was acutely aware of oppression, humiliation, and the will to survive. The quest for civil rights is an “endless struggle,” he explained in his memoir Walking with the Wind. Each day, each year brings with it “so much tension, so many storms” capable of shaking a house to its very foundation.
Fearless and outspoken to the end, Lewis’s mission — indeed his message to all Americans — was to respond to forces of oppression “with decency, dignity, and a sense of brotherhood,” a conviction that would eventually earn the unapologetic champion of marginalized people the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 and standing as the “conscience of Congress.”
An unwavering ally
Upon his 1987 arrival in the nation’s capital as Representative of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, Lewis quickly garnered a reputation as one of Congress’s most liberal voices, seamlessly amplifying his clarion call for civil rights into a broader narrative of universal and unequivocal human rights and an unwavering compulsion to be “on the right side of history.”
Not surprisingly then, Lewis was one of the earliest advocates for LGBTQ people. His powerful speech on the House floor in 1996 — occurring at a time when the vast majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage — excoriated the tenets of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and argued that marriage was a “basic human right” that no politician could and should deny. Even before DOMA drew Lewis’s ire (and subsequent “no” vote alongside fellow Democrat Cynthia McKinney), his words of compassion during a vigil for slain gay student Matthew Shepard on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1998 and staunch opposition to the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy earlier that decade were truly iconoclastic actions that endeared him to LGBTQ people.
“Simply [being] different,” Lewis wrote in his memoir, “from the long-entrenched white Anglo-Saxon Protestant standard that defined and controlled our society for its first two hundred years” was enough for Lewis to see the fundamental synergies between the inequities wrought upon Black Americans and the marginalization of the LGBTQ community.
Throughout his career, Lewis co-sponsored or championed more than a dozen legislative bills dedicated to advancing LGBT rights and curtailing discriminatory practices. In 2003, in an Op-Ed in The Boston Globe, he implored the nation and fellow lawmakers to consider the historic “crossroads” at which America found itself over the issue of same-sex couples’ freedom to marry. “It is time to say forthrightly that the government’s exclusion of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters from civil marriage officially degrades them and their families,” he argued. “I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I’ve heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry.”
Lewis was also a founding voice and fervent advocate for the Equality Act, a bill first introduced in 2015 that sought not only to prohibit discrimination based on sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, but also the expansion of public protections for LGBTQ people in housing, workplaces, public services, federally funded programs, and education. Knowing that the bill’s passage on May 17, 2019 on the House floor — a remarkable achievement unto itself — would likely stall in the U.S. Senate, Lewis nonetheless adopted an inspired tone, exclaiming that “Today, on this day, we have an opportunity to send a message now to help end discrimination in our country and set all of our people free.”
Toward the end of his life, Lewis’s affection for the LGBTQ community — not to mention his admiration for the Black Lives Matter movement — remained unsullied, even with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in late 2019. In addition to remaining a fixture at annual Atlanta Pride parades or leading a sit-in protest over gun control in the wake of the Orlando Pulse massacre, Rep. Lewis chastised the Trump administration for rolling back healthcare protections for transgender people during the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic and reminded all Americans in his final words that “[o]rdinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America.”
As the first African-American lawmaker to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Rep. Lewis’ body was returned to Georgia for interment in South-View Cemetery in Atlanta. During his final journey through Atlanta’s midtown neighborhood, Rep. Lewis’ hearse made a symbolic stop at the rainbow-colored crosswalks on 10th St. NE and Piedmont Ave NE in the heart of Atlanta’s gay neighborhood (see photo above).
It was, for many, a fitting sendoff to one of Atlanta’s favorite sons.