Lewis, who served 17 terms in Congress as a Democratic Representative of Atlanta, was born to sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama in the ‘40s. He was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize the March on Washington, the civil rights march where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis was the last survivor of the “Big Six,” a group of history-making civil rights activists led by Dr. King.
The congressman was a longtime ally of the LGBTQ community, supporting same-sex marriage in the early 2000s, more than a decade prior to the Supreme Court decision for marriage equality. In an editorial he wrote for the Boston Globe in 2003, he compared the fight for LGTQ rights to the civil rights movement: “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. 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.”
In his later years, Lewis cosponsored and advocated for a number of LGBTQ rights bills, including the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, Respect for Marriage Act, and the Early Treatment for HIV Act.
Last month, he celebrated the landmark Supreme Court ruling that federal civil rights law protect workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. “[The] Supreme Court Decision restores my hope in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s conviction that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” he said. “Although I am encouraged by this opinion, we all know that much work remains. It is impossible to ignore tat deeply rooted structural inequality, xenophobia, and bias continues to permeate our nation, and LGBTQ people of color—especially transgender women—experience violence, discrimination, and socioeconomic disparities at alarming rates.”
Many mourn the loss of Lewis, including former president Barack Obama, Georgia Senatorial candidate Jon Ossoff, and Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
The most humble of heroes, the most brave of giants. @repjohnlewis loved unconditionally and called upon us all to be a better version of ourselves. He was my Congressman and my best example of true servant leadership. I am grateful for his life and the joy of having known him. pic.twitter.com/HC23WElOtV
This is the man that taught us all how to get into some #GoodTrouble. One of my heroes. A true legend. Thank you for teaching us how to fight for liberty & justice for all mankind. This photo was taken at the @HRC Dinner in DC 2016 right before the world blew up. RIP #JohnLewispic.twitter.com/8BPFqCb5eA
“When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged [Lewis] on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made,” Obama said in a statement. “And through all those years, he never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me and Michelle and our family. We will miss him dearly.”