Voice for Equality: John Lewis
February 16, 2010
Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) has been at the forefront of progressive social movements for nearly a half a century. As president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963, he was dubbed one of the "Bix Six" leaders of the Civil Rights Movement along with Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer and Roy Wilkins. He is the last living speaker from the historic March on Washington in August 1963.
Born the son of sharecroppers on February 21, 1940, outside of Troy, Alabama, Lewis grew up inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He went on to attend Fisk University, and in 1961 he participated in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South.
In 1965, along with fellow civil rights leader Hosea Williams, Lewis led over 600 peaceful protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers, and the news broadcasts and photographs from the event depicting the cruelty of the segregated South helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1977, Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency. In 1986, he was elected to Congress as US Representative of Georgia's Fifth Congressional District (which includes Atlanta).
Lewis has been awarded numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Golden Plate Award given by the Academy of Excellence, the Preservation Hero award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Capital Award of the National Council of La Raza, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, the President's Medal of Georgetown University, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, the John F. Kennedy "Profile in Courage Award" for lifetime achievement, and the National Education Association Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award.
The Democratic House leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has called Rep. Lewis "the conscience of the U.S. Congress."
Congressional Record -- July 11, 1996:
"Mr. Chairman, I want to thank my friend and colleague for yielding me the time."
"Let me say to the gentleman that when I was growing up in the south during the 1940s and the 1950s, the great majority of the people in that region believed that black people should not be able to enter places of public accommodation, and they felt that black people should not be able to register to vote, and many people felt that was right but that was wrong. I think as politicians, as elected officials, we should not only follow but we must lead, lead our districts, not put our fingers into the wind to see which way the air is blowing but be leaders.
"Mr. Chairman, this is a mean bill. It is cruel. This bill seeks to divide our nation, turn Americans against Americans, sew the seeds of fear, hatred and intolerance. Let us remember the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths self-evident that all people are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
"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. You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say when people talked about interracial marriage and I quote, 'Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.'
"Why do you not want your fellow men and women, your fellow Americans to be happy? Why do you attack them? Why do you want to destroy the love they hold in their hearts? Why do you want to crush their hopes, their dreams, their longings, their aspirations?
"We are talking about human beings, people like you, people who want to get married, buy a house, and spend their lives with the one they love. They have done no wrong.
"I will not turn my back on another American. I will not oppress my fellow human being. 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.
"Mr. Chairman, I have known racism. I have known bigotry. This bill stinks of the same fear, hatred and intolerance. It should not be called the Defense of Marriage Act. It should be called the defense of mean-spirited bigots act.
"I urge my colleagues to oppose this bill, to have the courage to do what is right. This bill appeals to our worst fears and emotions. It encourages hatred of our fellow Americans for political advantage. Every word, every purpose, every message is wrong. It is not the right thing to do, to divide Americans.
We are moving toward the 21st century. Let us come together and create one nation, one people, one family, one house, the American house, the American family, the American nation."
Boston Globe, October 25, 2003:
"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."