Lots of other people have written about U.S. Representative John Lewis. He was one of many fighting in the civil rights movement from the Nashville Student Movement in 1960, through the Freedom Rides and beyond. He was one of the “Big Six” organizers of the 1963 March On Washington (and until his death last week, he was the last survivor of the Big Six). He was beaten by police, arrested, had dog set on him, received countless death threats, but he never backed down. And eventually, he became not just an activist, but a member of Congress.
He was an American Hero from early on.
But he became one of my personal heroes in 1996. Bill Clinton had run for President on a promise to bring equal rights to the LGBT community, but instead he caved to pressure from the Republicans, conservative Democrats, and (even more problematic) timid Democrats. Instead of equality, he created the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy for the armed services, which instead of making it easier for queer people to serve, significantly increased the number of discharges for being gay. And he also ultimately signed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which made it illegal for the federal government to recognized marriages of same-sex couples if states decided to extend those rights, and also exempted states from recognizing those marriages from other states (a clear violation of the Full Faith and Credit clause of the U.S. Constitution).
John Lewis was not one of the timid Democrats. He rose in opposition to the act. He spoke passionately about why he would vote against it.
“This bill is a slap in the face of the Declaration of Independence. It denies gay men and women the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Marriage is a basic human right.”
—Rep. John Lewis, explaining why he was voting against the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in 1996
Unfortunately, the law passed. And we would have to wait for the Supreme Court to finally rule it unconstitutional in 2012.
That wasn’t the only time that John Lewis—a straight Black man, raised in the south, and an ordained Southern Baptist preacher—fought for LGBT rights.
“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.”
—Rep. John Lewis, in an op-ed he wrote for the Boston Globe in 2003
“As a nation, we cannot say we are committed to equality, if we do not mandate equality for every citizen. You cannot have equality for some in America and not equality for all. This is another major step down a very long road toward the realization of a fair and just society. We should embrace the decision of the United States Supreme Court. It is now the law of the land.”
—Rep. John Lewis, commenting after the Supreme Court legalized Marriage Equality in 2015
I had really hoped that Rep. Lewis would live long enough to see us oust the fascist from the White House. I guess we’ll have to do in on our own.
Every time I see another headline about Lewis’s death, tears come to my eyes. We have lost a giant.
Rise in glory, John Lewis.
Rest in power, sir.