He grew up, by his own admission, “dirt poor” in a small town in Alabama. He was an “earnest, not exceptional” student. He’s small. Shy even, although less so nowadays as those who saw him dance across the stage to Pharrell’s “Happy” at this year’s Atlanta Human Rights Campaign dinner will attest.
But none of that stopped him from becoming one of the original Freedom Riders at age 20, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at 23, and later in 1963 standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial giving a speech in front of 250,000 people on the National Mall as part of the March on Washington (left).
He paid for his activism, being thrown in jail numerous times and being beaten multiple times, including a skull fracture courtesy of the Alabama State Troopers that has left him with a scar visible to this day. But he never hit back—not with his fists.
After a failed congressional run in 1977, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981. But it was in 1986 that The Streak began—his election to U.S. Congress representing Georgia’s 5th congressional district. He’s unopposed this November and is set to win the seat for the 15th straight time.
U.S. Rep. Lewis, 74, was a supporter of LGBT rights when it wasn’t popular. And he continues to speak out on our issues and show up at our events.
He sat down with the GA Voice one recent Tuesday morning at his office in downtown Atlanta as news coverage of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri played on a TV behind us. He sits upright and on the edge of his seat the entire interview, engaged but at ease, with occasional hints of his Alabama roots coming through his warm voice.
He dove into what made gay civil rights leader and March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin so special, the last time he was discriminated against, what the LGBT movement is missing, what unlikely profession he would have taken up if he weren’t a civil rights leader and politician and much more.
Congressman Lewis, you’ve talked about how by the age of six you had only seen two white people in your entire life. Do you remember the first gay person you met?
I guess the first gay person that I met, it was a person within the movement that was attending the nonviolent workshops in Nashville maybe around the age of 18 ½ or 19. I never gave it any thought but I knew that the person was gay. But nobody talked about it.
It was the same thing with Bayard Rustin—no one would mention it until the the time we started planning for the March on Washington. You assumed it but you didn’t say anything. You just didn’t talk about it.
You met Rustin in the summer of 1959. What was he like? What kind of personality did he have?
He was very outgoing, exciting, optimistic, hopeful. Most of the time you saw him he had a long cigarette in his hand and he would have it between his fingers. Brilliant. Smart as hell.
But no one during those meetings would say anything until we started planning the March on Washington. And when there was a debate about whether Bayard should be the chair of the March on Washington, in an open meeting there was not much discussion [of Rustin being gay] but off to to the side, and not in his presence, people made the point that he had been arrested in California on what they called a “morals” charge.
Then there was a rumor that he had been a member of the Young Communists party, so there was this feeling that the southern legislators would use this against the March on Washington.
[Rustin] was a good organizer, a good planner, just brilliant. He was very concerned about how the march would go. And one thing that I will never ever forget, a few days before the march he wanted to know whether we had enough latrines. He said, “We cannot have any disorganized pissing on the mall.” And everybody thought that was so funny.
And he was such a key figure in the march—
If it hadn’t been for him, there wouldn’t have been a march.
How close was the decision to him not being a part of it? It was a very serious debate wasn’t it?
Oh yeah, it was very serious. But you could not deny him some role, some major role. I think he was the last person who spoke, he issued the demands. “We demand this” and “we demand that.” He was forceful. People listened to him.
But he was discriminated against. Without a doubt, he was discriminated against because he was gay. I don’t think the movement made the best use of his talent and his ability because he was gay. If he were around today, he would be holding a major role in some organization, some institution in government someplace. It’s too bad that he didn’t live to see this day.
There’s a history of establishment figures in different movements across time hesitating to push things, while a vocal minority pushed for more aggressive moves. You were part of that vocal minority as the chairman of SNCC during the civil rights era. The LGBT community is engaged in a similar conversation here in Georgia lately about how much to push Democratic candidates to state all of their views on LGBT issues on the record regardless of how it might hurt them in a general election. Do you think the LGBT community should expect more out of our Democratic candidates considering the groundswell of change in public opinion about us?
I think if people feel strongly about an issue they have a moral obligation to speak up and speak out. On the other hand, I think they have to have what I call an “executive session” with themselves. Say “this is my position and this is where I’m going to stand” and be consistent and be persistent. And use their candidacy, use their presence to help educate. And it’s very difficult for people in this region, but leaders have to lead.
I can understand the position that Michelle [Nunn] and Jason [Carter] may be in. I’ve heard “Let them get elected and they’ll be more effective and be able to do more and say more” but I think there are many politicians in this region that are reluctant to say anything. I tell people all the time, “Go with your gut and it will work out.” It’s amazing to me that in such a short few years, people have come so far. And they just need a little leadership really.
The situation in Ferguson has been all over the news lately. Why should the LGBT community make a point to care and speak up about events like these?
It’s important for the community to speak up and speak out with a powerful voice because in the final analysis, we’re all in the same boat. When one group of people are being put down because of race or sexual orientation or religion or nationality, it tends to affect all of us really.
That’s why when people ask why I take such a strong stand for the gay community, I always say, “I’ve fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and speak up and speak out on discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
When people talk about same-sex marriage, I tend to paraphrase the words of Dr. King. When people asked him about interracial marriage, he would say, “Races don’t fall in love and get married—individuals fall in love and get married.”
So if two guys want to fall in love and get married, it’s their business. If two women want to fall in love and get married, it’s their business. And no government—state or federal—should should be able to tell people who they should fall in love with and get married to. It’s just that simple to me.
When was the last time you were discriminated against for the color of your skin?
Oh I don’t know whether…well, I think a few years ago at the Democratic Convention in New York City, I was with my wife and son and we tried to get a cab. This may not be because of race but we were trying to wave the cab down and he came over and I think he saw that we were African-American and he went back to the other side and picked up some other people. Maybe he thought we were going to the wrong parts of New York City, but we were just going to a hotel a few blocks down.
What’s the most memorable thing a U.S. president has said to you?
President Barack Obama on the day he was sworn in, he wrote a little note and it said, “Because of you, John” and he signed it. Then in 2013, he said to me again, “It’s still because of you, John.” He didn’t write it, he just said it. So he didn’t forget what he wrote four years earlier and I will never forget that. I have the note and one day I’m going to get it framed.
What’s the importance of an event like Black Gay Pride? Some people question the need for having a separate Pride.
I think maybe there’s a feeling in the black gay community that they will get lost or not become as visible. Maybe they just want to show or demonstrate that there are gay individuals in the African-American community and there’s a need to get together. But each year I see more and more African-American men and women attending functions, in the parade, attending dinners and other little functions of the gay community.
I think we all have to recognize the fact, as we do in the larger community, that it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, Latino or Asian American or Native American, we’re all in the same boat and we got to look out for each other. That’s where I think America is moving. I really believe this. I may be crazy and a little too hopeful and a little too optimistic, but I think one day, and I think it will happen very soon, that people will look back, not just the gay community but the American community and say, “Why were we so silly?” and laugh about this period.
When you think about the state of the LGBT community as it stands right now, what do you think our movement is missing?
The only thing I would suggest that the gay community or the gay movement do is study the literature of the civil rights movement. That’s what I said to young African-Americans today who are all upset about what is happening—study what we did, watch the film footage and learn from it. I don’t like the violence. I don’t like that type of conflict. You can do something in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion. And in the long run, you move closer to what Dr. King called “the beloved community.”
Do you have any regrets about your time during the civil rights struggle and your time in politics?
I regret that maybe when we were meeting in New York City as a group [about the March on Washington] that we didn’t take a stronger stand. Some people said the time was not right, but as Dr. King would say, “The time is always right to do right.” But we should have spoke up and spoke out strongly for Bayard Rustin. I wished I would have spent more time talking with him, listening to him, spent more time with Dr. King and listening to him, and learning from the two of them and learning from A. Phillip Randolph. He was a prince of a man really, unbelievable, one of a kind.
And since being in politics, there’s things I said that I probably shouldn’t have said the way I said it. But I don’t regret too much really.
You’re about to win your congressional seat for the 15th straight time and no challengers are on the horizon anytime soon. Have you started thinking about life after politics?
I don’t think about retiring so much, but I cannot stay forever and I will not stay forever. I enjoy it. I love coming back to the district and spending some time. Yesterday I walked with several hundred young people [about the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson], primarily students, and some older people from the CNN Center around the block and it started raining and thundering and lightning and I got wet, I was drenched, but I felt good about it.
There were all these young people coming up and thanking me, giving me a hug and hugging them back. They would say, “Can I hug you?” and I would say, “Thank you, I need a hug.” And when I’m traveling around the country and in Atlanta, people come up and say, “Thank you for standing up for the gay community.” And that’s a good feeling. I appreciate it.
So if you could have been anything in the world besides a civil rights activist and a politician, what would you have done?
I would have loved to have been able to be an artist, to paint or to draw. I love artwork. I love the colors. If I had my way and had the ability, I would have a studio someplace and I would just paint and draw. When you get out and travel and see this country and see the world, it’s a beautiful place. We just have to leave it a little better than how we found it.