On Friday, Georgia congressional representative and Civil Rights Movement icon John Robert Lewis passed way. Lewis is widely known as a man who dutifully served his country without once putting on a uniform. He is best known for his staunch, unyielding direct action and advocacy to undo systemic anti-Black racism in America during the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout his life, Lewis utilized his great mind while constantly putting his body in harm’s way to improve the quality of life for African Americans, including LGBTQ+ individuals and people living with HIV.
The Young Activist Leads a Movement
Lewis’ abilities were recognized early on by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who originally was a mentor to Lewis and eventually became a friend. Lewis had petitioned Dr. King for his assistance to further his education at Troy State College (Troy University today), which was only 10 miles from his home in rural Alabama. The university did not even acknowledge his application; therefore, Lewis attended university in Nashville, Tennessee, where his activism took root. He became a leader within the Civil Rights Movement in his early 20s. He inserted himself into the most dangerous components of the work—counter sit-ins, bus boycotts, and the Freedom Rides.
Lewis recognized that the road to Freedom would be dangerous for all those who challenged the status quo. He remained undeterred. Across the South in Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama, the young Lewis was kicked, beaten, jailed, and shot at. Even after being beaten unconscious during a Freedom Ride stop, he carried on. His persistence caught the attention of national leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. Eventually, he was chosen to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC is widely credited with ensuring that the major portion of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. King remained relevant to its younger, more progressive branches by incorporating aggressive Black voter registration across the Deep South. During his tenure as chair of SNCC, Lewis continually advocated for unapologetic support of African Americans against all forms of oppression. Leaders took note. At the age of 23, he became a lead organizer and also the youngest speaker during the famed March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held on August 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C.
Nothing stopped this icon. John Lewis will always be remembered as one of the courageous leaders who led nearly 600 protestors through one of the worst moments of the Civil Rights Movement on a day rightfully called Bloody Sunday. On March 7, 1965, Lewis, at age 25, was one of the lead organizers of a march that was planned from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to raise awareness of voter suppression in Alabama specifically and across the entire nation. The march crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, whose name was dedicated in the 1940s to a U.S. senator (and former general for the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War) who was elected to the position while serving as a leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. This bridge represented the entrenchment of anti-Black oppression found across the Deep South. On that day, Lewis and the marchers were met at the Pettus Bridge with extreme violence by a gang of white nationalists led by Alabama state troopers and beaten back. However, the movement persisted until enfranchisement of Black Americans was better protected by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Becoming Congressperson Lewis: Defender of LGBT Rights and HIV Advocate
John Lewis continued his vocation by ensuring that the voices and needs of African Americans were heeded at the ballot box and beyond. He served as a community organizer and eventually moved into public service as a councilmember in Atlanta and ultimately as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. From 1987 until his passing, Lewis represented the City of Atlanta in Congress; his district included the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the famed historically Black colleges and universities of Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University. As with all of his life’s work, Rep. Lewis held himself and his colleagues to the highest levels of integrity and service.
During his time in office, Lewis directly advocated for his constituents who were disproportionately impacted by HIV, in addition to other communities experiencing poor HIV-related health outcomes. Rep. Lewis often spoke about and addressed the social determinants of health that create and exacerbate these disparities, such as reduced access to the ballot box, which directly impacts access to health care and ultimately access to a high quality of life.
In 1996, Rep. Lewis went against his party’s leadership and fought to undo the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which legalized exclusion of gay men and lesbians from the institution of marriage. He famously quipped, “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.” As the marriage equality movement began to accelerate in 2003, Lewis continued his push for equity on all levels. He 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.”
John Lewis always recognized that words were not enough. As HIV continued to ravage the lives of his constituents, he took up his usual role as a visible community leader by speaking directly to one of the key drivers of poor health outcomes: HIV-related stigma. During National HIV/AIDS Testing Day and National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Rep. Lewis could be seen being screened for HIV or directly engaging people living with HIV (PLHIV) about their HIV care and treatment needs. Longtime constituent and leading HIV physician Madeline Sutton, M.D., M.P.H., of Morehouse School of Medicine and founding CEO of One Brain 4Health stated, “When visiting hospitals, he spoke with strength, compassion, and always with actionable steps. He’s always been at the forefront of policies to help with HIV testing and access to care, including the Affordable Care Act, knowing how much it could help persons living with HIV.”
Furthermore, as a member and in partnership with the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, Rep. Lewis continually looked for ways to improve care and treatment for people living with and communities greatly impacted by HIV. As a result of the federal Ending the HIV Epidemic initiative (EHE), it is expected that more people will be engaged in HIV-related care and prevention. However, as the public health workforce retires with fewer replacements, there are fewer clinicians who specifically train to serve PLHIV. He worked to change that by introducing the HIV Epidemic Loan-Repayment Program (HELP) Act to entice more doctors, pharmacists, and dentists to move into the field by offering loan forgiveness. Rep. Lewis said, “We need to support all our brothers and sisters who are living with HIV/AIDS. Congress must continue to do our part to end HIV in the United States.”
His long history of supporting disenfranchised communities has been felt in Congress and in community. Justin Smith, M.S., M.P.H., who directs the Campaign to End AIDS in Atlanta at the Positive Impact Health Centers and serves on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA), recognized the expansiveness of his impact in Atlanta and beyond. Smith shared, “Representative Lewis’ willingness to lead on issues of HIV and LGBTQ+ rights showed his lifelong commitment to intersectional justice and provided the blueprint for the leadership that is so sorely needed in this moment.”
His legacy of ensuring that African Americans’ voices are heard at the ballot box continues. There is reenergized advocacy to see one of his final bills become law. The new and expanded voting rights bill would create systems for determining which states must obtain clearance to change voting practices. This bill was crafted in response to the systemic voter suppression that occurred primarily in the South after a Supreme Court decision allowing states with a longstanding history of voter suppression to decide their own criteria for voter registration. The U.S. Senate has yet to vote on the bill.
In one of his last public appearances, Rep. Lewis supported protestors of police brutality by coming to the newly created Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., which is just steps away from the White House—and a few more steps away from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was created after he sponsored a bill to create it as part of the Smithsonian. At his appearance at BLM Plaza, and in addition to community organizing video calls with advocates working to end police brutality, Rep. Lewis could be seen reveling in the youthful, intersectional energy that is leading this movement.
Like so many others who have had the opportunity to meet this great leader, Sutton remarked, “I learned that even if fighting for our affected communities was perceived as causing trouble, then so be it. That’s the best kind of trouble. Rest in peace, Sir. May we continue your life’s work by getting into all kinds of Good Trouble.”