Editor’s Note: On July 17, Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta died of pancreatic cancer. What follows is an editorial by BeaverCountian.com founder John Paul, first published on October 9, 2016. We are republishing it here again today in Congressman Lewis’ memory.
“When you see something that is not fair, not right, not just, you must have the courage to make some noise, to speak up and speak out. Sometimes you must find a way to get in the way and get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”
– Congressman John Lewis
I had just finished my junior year at Beaver High School back in 1996 and like most teenagers I was struggling to imagine what on earth my place in this world would be. As a young gay man I was also struggling with an added internal turmoil that came from realizing I was different. While I had not yet come to find myself, a stranger from Georgia began to lead me on a march in the right direction.
In 1993 the Supreme Court of Hawaii had caused something of a ruckus by ruling the state would have to show a compelling interest in prohibiting same-sex marriage. Although Hawaii did not actually legalize gay marriage, the very thought of such a possibility sent the United States Congress into fits. If one state were to legalize such an abomination, they reasoned, all states may be forced to recognize gay marriages.
Three years later, Republican Congressman Bob Barr introduced the Defense Of Marriage Act, more commonly known as DOMA. Although gay marriage was not legal anywhere in the United States, the prophylactic legislation barred same-sex married couples from being recognized as “spouses” for purposes of federal law — no social security survivors’ benefits or filing of joint tax returns, for example.
The legislative history and procedural details were all above my head at the time. What I do recall is watching the nightly news and seeing clips of our nation’s leaders quoting Leviticus and insisting the country needed to be protected from people like me. It was terrifying. The bill would eventually be passed by a large veto-proof margin and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, but not before a small group of leaders managed to make some noise about it — Most notably among them, Democratic Congressman John Lewis of Georgia.
Before being elected to Congress, John Lewis was one of the pivotal figures of the civil rights movement, who as Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee helped to organized the 1963 march on Washington that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
I still remember sitting in my room watching tv when John Lewis’ remarks before Congress were aired. The voice of a man who had hot coffee thrown on him for sitting at a lunch counter, who was beaten for riding next to a white man on a bus, bloodied for marching across a bridge in Selma, was now speaking on my behalf.
“When I was growing up in the south during the 40s and the 50s, the great majority of the people in that region believed that black people shouldn’t be able to enter places of public accommodation,” Lewis said on the House floor. “They felt black people shouldn’t be able to register to vote. Many people felt that was right but that was wrong. I think as elected officials we should not only follow, but we must lead our districts […] You can not tell people they can not fall in love.
“Why don’t you 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 want to get married, buy a house, and spend their lives with the one they love. They have done no wrong.”
His words lived in me. It was through that speech I began to truly understand how our country grew into being and learned the power of public discourse in an open democracy. John Lewis was not able to stop the passage of that hurtful legislation, but he helped to give me hope for my own future and made me realize I would not be marching alone.
Nearly two decades later, our country would catch up with Congressman Lewis. His punditry from 1996 became part of a national warming of hearts which overpowered that misguided policy when it was finally struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 2013, and when just last year same-sex marriage was declared a Constitutional right.
Congressman Lewis has never stopped marching.
He brought a big smile to my face again earlier this year when he began teaching yet another generation about the power of civil disobedience and peaceful protest… this time by literally sitting down on the floor of the House of Representatives for 24 hours after a mass shooting in Orlando. Too many people are getting shot to death and John Lewis would very much like the country to start taking that seriously. Millions of young people flocked to Facebook and Twitter to cheer at the sight of a Congressman breaking the rules — some of these young people now destine to become the next generation of our nation’s leaders.
I had always wanted to thank Mr. Lewis for speaking out on my behalf, for helping to give me hope when I was that terrified teenager, for accepting me at a time in my life when I had not yet even come to accept myself. Although long overdue, I finally got that chance yesterday after hearing him speak at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh.
“I did my best,” he told me. “I told them all it was mean spirited because that’s what it was.”
Words can change the world. Thank you John Lewis.
In October of this year, I will be celebrating my 22nd year with Brad, the love of my life. We had been living together as a devoted couple for 16 years before we were finally able to get legally married on May 21, 2014. We were the first gay couple married in Beaver County.
What follows is the speech Congressman Lewis gave at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh on October 8th, 2016:
Congressman John Lewis’ life is chronicled in the New York Times bestselling three-volume graphic novel, “March.“