Talking with John Lewis
Congressman speaks out on Ferguson, LGBT issues, and more in our in-depth interview.
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)