Earlier this morning I sat in my home looking for something to watch as I ate breakfast. I must admit that I was looking for something light, but what I found was much more important and impactful, the funeral for Congressman John Lewis in the place he grew up in Alabama. As friends, pastors, and his brothers and sisters spoke, I found myself weeping for the loss of one of the greatest civil rights advocates of my lifetime. John Robert Lewis was “preaching” and speaking for civil rights from the time he was a boy living in the Jim Crow South. Eighty years ago when he was born just before WWII, the South was much more segregated and much more dangerous for a person of color than it is today, and he bravely spoke, marched, and stood for equality even then. He was beaten and jailed for his work, but he stood steadfast for equality and fairness.
Most people know that Congressman Lewis was a civil rights champion for the rights of people of color, but most people aren’t as aware of the strong position he took on LGBT+ rights as well. He was a champion for marriage equality and he introduced the Equality Act, which is a bill to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, credit, education, and jury service, at the National level. To date this bill has only passed the House of Representatives, and currently languishes on the desk of Senator Mitch McConnell who will not bring it for vote in the Senate. Virginia had its own Virginia Values Act passed and signed into law this year, and much of what is in that law mirrors what Congressman Lewis envisioned for the whole country. We are lucky here in Virginia to have a General Assembly and Governor who believe in equality, but much of the country does not have that kind of representation, especially Southern states, where Congressman Lewis grew up and represented in Congress. In fact, Virginia is the first Southern state to have the kind of protections that the Virginia Values Act codifies into law.
Congressman Lewis also stood with our LGBT+ communities against attacks by the Trump administration, such as the ban on transgender service members and the anti-transgender health care rule. He has consistently stood with us for much of his time in Congress even before it was the widely accepted thing to do. He worked to improve the lives of LGBT+ people and others living with HIV, even leading pushes for HIV testing by stepping up to be screened for HIV himself on HIV/AIDS Awareness days, or directly engaging those living with HIV. In 1996, he fought to undo the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which legalized exclusion of gay men and lesbians from marriage. He stated, “This bill (DOMA) 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.” He stood with us in 2003 when he stated, “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.”
It is no wonder that Congressman Lewis was called the “Conscience of the Congress”. His steadfast and even stubborn insistence to stand up for the disenfranchised and fight for those with little of no voice meant that every day he led the fight even if it meant putting his body in harm’s way to do the right thing. What an honor to be respected and admired so greatly that you are literally called the conscience of our federal legislative branch!
I will leave you with one of Congressman Lewis’ most famous quotes, ‘Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” May we all get about the process of getting in good trouble, necessary trouble each day.