Talk­ing with John Lewis

Con­gress­man speaks out on Fer­gu­son, LGBT is­sues, and more in our in-depth in­ter­view.

GA Voice - - Front Page - By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS psaun­ders@the­gavoice.com

John Lewis was never sup­posed to be “John Lewis.”

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, although he seems less so nowa­days to any­one who saw him dance across the stage to Phar­rell’s “Happy” at this year’s At­lanta Hu­man Rights Cam­paign din­ner.

But none of that stopped him from be­com­ing one of the orig­i­nal Free­dom Rid­ers, chair­ing the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Co­or­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee, and at the ten­der age of 23, giv­ing a speech in front of 250,000 peo­ple on the Na­tional Mall as part of the March on Wash­ing­ton.

His ac­tivism came with a price. He was beaten sev­eral times, once re­ceiv­ing a skull frac­ture cour­tesy of the Alabama State Troop­ers that left him with a scar vis­i­ble to this day. But he never hit back — not with his fists, any­way.

Lewis was elected to the At­lanta City Coun­cil in 1981 be­fore be­gin­ning The Streak in 1986—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. 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 sat 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, what the LGBT move­ment is miss­ing, and touched on why there is a need for Black Gay Pride.

You met Ba­yard 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

“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.” — John Lewis

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 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.

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.

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 chair 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.

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 AfricanAmer­i­cans 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.”

So if you could have been any­thing in the world be­sides a civil rights ac­tivist and a politi­cian, what would you have been?

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.

Rep. John Lewis con­tin­ues to speak out on LGBT is­sues as he pre­pares to win his 15th straight con­gres­sional elec­tion this Novem­ber. (Photo by Pa­trick Saun­ders)

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