John Lewis: True champion of 'equality and justice for all'
The Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony is that one moment in Washington -- brief though it may be -- when partisanship stops and a celebration of American values begins. Yesterday, 15 individuals from all walks of life who embody those values were given their due. But it was the medal to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) that resonated most for me -- but not exactly for what you might think.
Lewis started his push for equality for African Americans 50 years ago by taking part in the Freedom Rides. He was one of the founders and leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the organizers of and keynote speakers at the 1963 March on Washington. Taylor Branch's superb and detailed accounting of those pivotal years in "Parting the Waters" turned Lewis into a hero for me. A hero I got to meet when we shared the same table at the state dinner for South African President Thabo Mbeki in 2000.
But Lewis's dedication to equality for all didn't hit me until I heard his him speak at the Human Rights Campaign national dinner in 2003. In his keynote address, Lewis, like no one else could, made the link between the Civil Rights movement and the struggle of gay men and lesbians against inequality, discrimination and second-class citizenship. As an African American, I was proud to have Lewis so squarely in my corner as a gay man. As a gay man, I was overwhelmed to have a black man respect and defend my right to be happy. Little did I know that the man who helped America live up to its ideals for blacks had been speaking up for gays since at least 1996.
Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry reminded me that Lewis was one of the 65 Democrats to vote against the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. And as you will see by the clip of his floor speech on July 11, 1996, his remarks below, the power of his speech lies in the simplicity of his argument.
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.' Why do you not want your fellow men and women, your fellow Americans to be happy? Why do you attack them? Why do you want to destroy the love they hold in their hearts? Why do you want to crush their hopes, their dreams, their longings, their aspirations? We are talking about human beings, people like you, people who want to get married, buy a house, and spend their lives with the one they love. They have done no wrong.
Since then, Lewis has come back to that theme time and again, tying the civil rights movement he helped lead to the quest for gay and lesbian equality to which he lends moral support and conviction as a straight ally. In a 2003 Boston Globe op-ed, Lewis wrote, "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." On the eve of President Obama's inauguration in January 2009, he pushed back against those who say they are trying to "protect" the institution of marriage and against those who say there's a difference between discrimination against blacks and gays during an interview with NPR. "Gay marriage is not a threat to heterosexual marriage. It is time for us to put that argument behind us," Lewis told Terry Gross. " You cannot separate the issue of civil rights. It one of those absolute, immutable principle - we got to have not just civil rights for some but civil rights for all of us."
As the president placed the nation's highest honor around Lewis's neck, a narrator briefly retold the Civil Rights legend storied past and finished by saying, "John Lewis has earned our lasting gratitude for a lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of equality and justice for all." For gay men and lesbians, such dedication means having a powerful ally where it's needed most.
| February 16, 2011; 2:44 PM ET
Categories: Capehart | Tags: Jonathan Capehart
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