John Lewis' motorcade makes symbolic stop to honor decades of LGBTQ advocacy

The civil rights giant, who died this month, was a fierce and early defender of gay rights.
By Brooke Sopelsa

As the hearse carrying John Lewis' body drove through Atlanta's Midtown neighborhood on Wednesday, it made a lengthy and symbolic stop at a rainbow crosswalk as dozens of people gathered on the sidewalk to watch the procession pass.

“It feels very appropriate that that stop was prolonged for John Lewis’ legacy," Victoria Kirby York of the National LGBTQ Task Force told NBC News. "I believe his vocal leadership and support in championing LGBTQ equality — even prior to it becoming a cool thing for people to hop on the bandwagon for — was critical in being able to shift public opinion across the country.”

York added: “He was about civil rights, equality and liberation for everybody. Period. Full stop.”

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., speaks at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on June 6, 2006, to oppose a proposal for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban same-sex marriage.Scott J. Ferrell / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

The stop by Lewis’ motorcade — lasting nearly a minute — was an acknowledgement of his vocal advocacy over the years for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans.

An early advocate

Lewis, who represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District from 1987 until his death on July 17, did not wait until it was politically safe to stand up for LGBTQ rights.

In 1996, when 65 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, Lewis delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor decrying the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA — federal legislation that sought to define marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman — as a “mean” and “cruel” bill.

“This bill 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 said. “You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say when people talked about interracial marriage and I quote: ‘Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.’”

DOMA, considered a political compromise at the time, easily passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton in September 1996. It was the law of the land until 2013, when United States v. Windsor chipped away at the heart of the legislation. Same-sex marriage would not be legal across the U.S. until 2015, when the Supreme Court handed down its Obergefell v. Hodges decision.

York said Lewis’ early support for LGBTQ rights was unsurprising, given his activism in the preceding decades.

“When you’ve stared death in the face solely because of the color of your skin, it gives you a different view of justice,” York said, referring to Lewis' multiple near-death experiences fighting for civil rights, including during the infamous "Bloody Sunday" protest on Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. “He put his body on the line to create the world that we all thought was impossible.”

“John Lewis’ moral compass overruled whatever the stigma of the day was,” she added. “Equality for black people means equality for Black LGBTQ people, and equality for Black LGBTQ people means equality for all LGBTQ people, and I think that was a clear through-line for him.”

A decades-long ally

Lewis would continue to be on the forefront of nearly every major congressional proposal to advance LGBTQ rights.

On Lewis’ congressional website, there is a page dedicated to LGBTQ issues, which prominently features a powerful quote from Lewis.

“I fought too long and too hard to end discrimination based on race and color, to not stand up against discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters,” it reads. He then goes on to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with whom he led the movement for racial equality, saying, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Lewis was a co-sponsor or vocal advocate for over a dozen congressional bills that sought to either expand LGBTQ rights or limit anti-LGBTQ discrimination, including the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) and the Respect for Marriage Act.

The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, noted that Lewis worked closely with Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., during the drafting of the Equality Act — which would modify existing civil rights legislation to add protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity— and was a lead sponsor of the legislation.

Following Lewis’ death, Alphonso David, the Human Rights Campaign’s first Black president, called Lewis “a hero and civil rights icon who pushed our country closer to the promise of a more perfect union.”

“Future generations will learn how he faced down discrimination with courage and defiance, boldly challenging the United States to envision a future where every person, no matter their race, sexual orientation or gender identity, has an equal chance at the American Dream,” David said in a statement.

Lewis appeared at an HRC fundraiser in 2016 and told the crowd of mostly LGBTQ people, “You and I are partners.”

“We are part of an ongoing struggle to redeem the soul of America, to help people in this country and around the world come to grips with one simple truth: We are one people,” he added. “We are one family. We are the human family.”

York said she hopes Lewis’ drive to fight for equality — even if not for a group to which he belonged — will inspire others to do the same.

“He gave full-throated, passionate appeals that all of God’s children be treated equally, and that that included LGBTQ people, and that meant so much to me, both in my career as an advocate and advocating for other marginalized communities that I may not identify with, like the transgender community and intersex community,” she said. “He was a powerful example of how we should be doing advocacy at the margins, and I hope every member of Congress has taken a lesson from him.

A changer of hearts and minds

While Lewis’ LGBTQ advocacy undoubtedly changed hearts and minds across demographic spectrums, York, who is Black, said there was a special significance and power in having a straight, cisgender Black man as such a visible ally.

“I think that all of those identities that he carried helped Black fathers, brothers, nephews all across the country learn how to talk and accept their own children, their own relatives who had been hurt by homophobia and transphobia,” she said, adding that he “gave permission for so many others who were potential allies to be able to step out of their fear” and support LGBTQ equality.

“John Lewis is a man of deep faith — no one could question that,” she added. “So for someone who is a man of deep faith to say that LGBTQ people matter, are equal and deserve protection and dignity, that gave other people the language to be able to say the same thing in their families, in their churches, in their homes. I believe that probably saved countless lives.”

In a sobering survey released this month, The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis prevention organization, found that 2 in 5 LGBTQ youth in the U.S. have "seriously considered" suicide in the past year.

“I do believe that those numbers could have been even higher if it wasn’t for the full-throated advocacy that John Lewis gave, and by him doing that, the permission he gave to others to really show up as the fathers that they wanted to be for their children,” she said.

‘Power of his legacy’

In a posthumous op-ed in The New York Times on Thursday, Lewis wrote: “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”

York said this message underscores the “power of his legacy.”

“We all have the capacity to create change,” she said, adding that Lewis “started as a teenager doing work to bring equality for all people, and that’s something that our youth should be excited about.”

“These protests and rallies over the course of this summer are moving this country forward,” she added. “If we can just stay in it together — despite hurt feelings, despite trauma, despite the healing we’ve got to do together, despite our blindness to other people’s experiences — if we remain open to it all, we can create a country we can be proud of for our children and our children’s children.”

York said this coming together of different groups is also part of Lewis’ legacy.

“It hasn’t been about one group over the other,” she said. “It’s been about all of us getting across the bridge together."

And, if Lewis' many supporters are successful, that bridge could one day be named after him.

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Cynthia Silva contributed.