Remembering John Lewis: The Hero, the Person, the Legend

Congressman John Lewis was a civil rights hero and dedicated ally to the LGBTQ community.

Lewis was a living legend, a nonviolent “happy warrior” who dedicated his life to the cause of equality for all. In his lifetime, he was already a symbol for the best in humanity, and he will doubtless be remembered as such for ages to come. Yet, for all that he was and persists in being iconic, it is sometimes hard to remember, without having known him, that he was flesh and blood, a person behind his own myth.

What struck everyone who met Lewis was his consistency of character. There was John Lewis the civil rights hero, John Lewis the congressman, and John Lewis the person, but they all lined up neatly in that his character was always the same. He lived in embodiment of his ideals.

Those who knew Lewis recall a generous, loving, humble man who was disarmingly approachable. He was kind to the point of being grandfatherly to his congressional interns, whom he would let keep the change from his lunch orders. He also liked to adopt cats, and many could be found around his home. His constituents would occasionally encounter him at the grocery store. He was authentically of the people in a way many politicians desire to appear to be, but seldom (if ever) are. He had witnessed and experienced great suffering, but was a persistently happy man. In fact, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams was his favorite song.

In the wake of his death, many writers have noted the true expansiveness of his commitment to human equality — that he did not limit himself to advocating for one cause, as he saw the connections between struggles for freedom. He viewed his experience confronting the worst of racism as a basis for connecting with the struggles of others. He spoke out for women’s rights, and he was publicly committed to LGBTQ rights, even when being LGBTQ was illegal and our community had few straight allies.

In 1996 Lewis publicly opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, delivering a brief but impassioned speech before the House.

This is a mean bill. It is cruel. This bill seeks to divide our nation, to turn Americans against Americans, sow the seeds of fear, hatred and intolerance. Let us remember the preamble of the Declaration of Independence: ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This bill is a slap in the face of the Declaration of Independence.

A few years later, in 2003, Lewis would declare his support for marriage equality in the Boston Globe:

We are now at such a crossroads over 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. It denies them the basic human right to marry the person they love. It denies them numerous legal protections for their families.

This discrimination is wrong. We cannot keep turning our backs on gay and lesbian Americans. 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 also sponsored numerous pieces of legislation supporting the LGBTQ community, including the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would have prohibited discrimination in adoption.

In 2015, he released a statement celebrating the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, which legalized same-sex marriage across the country. The next year he led a sit-in in Congress in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting, demanding action be taken to curb gun violence.

Lewis persisted in fighting for equality until the end of his life.

In June or July, Lewis wrote a final op-ed that was published in the New York Times after his death, urging people to “continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”

He concluded:

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.