The casket carrying the body of late civil rights icon and fierce LGBTQ ally, Congressman John Lewis, made its way through the heart of Atlanta's gayborhood on Wednesday. The processional made a poignant stop at the intersection of 10th & Piedmont surrounded by a small crowd of LGBTQ supporters and photojournalists.
Lewis never hesitated to lend his voice in the fight for equality for LGBTQ Americans, often drawing comparisons between the Black civil rights movement and the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
“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," wrote Lewis in a 2003 Boston Globe editorial on marriage equality.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Tamar Hallerman examined Lewis's long-history of supporting LGBTQ (marriage) equality in a stirring piece from earlier this month.
“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," said Lewis.
In his 1998 memoir “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis said his connection with the gay community sprang from his experience of being treated unequally a Black “simply because you are different from the long-entrenched white Anglo-Saxon Protestant standard that defined and controlled our society for its first two hundred years.
Lewis’ endorsement of gay marriage came at a time when the public and most religious and elected officials were not supportive or were openly opposed.
The issue divided Lewis from some of his civil rights peers. Lewis had equated the two movements, and leaders such as Coretta Scott King and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond had voiced support for LGBTQ rights. Others said that the struggle for gay rights was not the same as the fight for racial equality.
Lewis’ support meant a lot to members of Atlanta’s gay community in the 1990s and 2000s, especially when it was hard to find support even among one’s own relatives, said Anthony Antoine, an HIV activist.
“Having such a prominent activist leader so supportive of not just my gay life but my Black gay life… mattered so much,” said Antoine, who organized several LGBTQ marches in the early 2000s, including one protesting the Long-King march.
Lewis’ early support and continuing presence at some LBGTQ events, including the annual October parade Atlanta Pride, gave the movement confidence that it could accomplish the difficult tasks ahead, Antoine said.
It felt like, “what can’t we change?” he said. “Why wouldn’t we be able to have some impact? Because John Lewis was right off to the side…showing us support.”
Even in death, Lewis is still speaking and demanding us to create the change we seek. A posthumous op-ed written in the days leading up to Lewis' death was published today in The New York Times.
Lewis' funeral will be held today in Atlanta at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church with former President Barack Obama delivering the eulogy. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are also expected to be in attendance.