(Photo Credits: United States House of Representatives / Public domain)

You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love.

-Rep. John Lewis as he argued against Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996

Today, we bid goodbye to Representative John Robert Lewis who passed away last July 17, 2020 at the age of 80 after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer. In 2011, former President Barack Obama called him the “‘conscience of the United States Congress for his courage and unwavering commitment to justice.'”

Lewis—a farm boy from Troy, Alabama—was a civil rights leader and an LGBTQ advocate. 

He spent his youth organizing and participating in lunch counter sit-ins; challenging segregated buses as one of the 13 original Freedom Riders in 1961; and at the age of 23, he delivered a speech at the historic 1963 March on Washington (It is the same event where his mentor and friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech). 

Because of his activism, John Lewis was arrested at least 45 times for “charges like resisting the peace, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.” The most recent happened in 2013 while he was protesting on behalf of comprehensive immigration reform. 

On March 7, 1965, a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama led by then 25-year-old activist John Lewis ended in violence when “state and local lawmen attack the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas.” The demonstrators were demanding an end to discrimination in voter registration. That day, now referred to as “Bloody Sunday,” landed 17 people in hospital while dozens more were injured by the police including Lewis who reportedly suffered a fractured skull.

As a fervent LGBTQ advocate, Congressman Lewis helped protect and advance the rights of LGBTQ people by cosponsoring over a dozen bills. These include the following (check the complete list here): 

  • the Equality Act, a bill which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, credit, education and jury service,”
  • Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA), which “aimed to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and legalize same-sex marriage,”
  • Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would “prohibit federally funded child welfare service providers from discriminating against children, families and individuals based on religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status.”

In 2003, John Lewis wrote an op-ed article in Boston Globe titled, “At a crossroads on gay unions.” He said,

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.

John Lewis was a Democratic congressman from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, a post he held for a total of 17 terms since January 3, 1987 up to the time of his death. He received numerous awards for his decades of work as an advocate for peace, equality, racial justice, basic human rights, freedom, etc. including the following:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize 
  • NAACP Spingarn Medal
  • John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage Award” 
  • National Education Association Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President Barack Obama in 2011. 

His last words to the people were published in New York Times posthumously, reminding everyone that “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” He said:

“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.” Lewis added, “In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

Congressman Lewis believed that “The right to vote is precious and almost sacred, and one of the most important blessings of our democracy.” Let us all honor his memory and legacy by doing exactly that this upcoming November 2020 US presidential elections.

You can watch John Lewis’ funeral below where three former US presidents namely George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama delivered eulogy.

Thank you for everything that you have done for the LGBT community, Congressman Lewis. May you Rest in Peace.

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