Rep. John Lewis: “You Cannot Separate The Issue Of Civil Rights”
January 19th, 2009
In observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday today, Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) appeared on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” to talk about his experiences during the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. From 1963 to 1966, he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, during which he became a close associate of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. As he talked about the struggles to achieve basic voting rights for African-Americans, he also reflected on the importance of fighting for civil rights for everyone, including LGBT people:
Terry Gross: (At the 22:00 mark) I want to quote something that you wrote in an op-ed piece in October of 003, and this was about gay rights and the right for gay people to marry. You wrote, “I have fought too hard and for 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.” …I’ve heard some African-American leaders say that it’s wrong to make a connection between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement because discrimination against African-Americans and discrimination against gays are completely different things. And being gay and being black are completely different things. What’s your take on that?
Rep. Lewis: Well, I do not buy that argument. I do not buy that argument. And today I think more than ever before, we have to speak up and speak out to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. Dr. King used to say when people talked about blacks and whites falling in love and getting married — you know one time in the state of Virginia, in my native state of Alabama, in Georgia and other parts of the South, blacks and whites could not fall in love and get married. And Dr. King took a simple argument and said races don’t fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married. It’s not the business of the federal government, it’s not the business of the state government to tell two individuals that they cannot fall in love and get married. And so I go back to what I said and wrote those lines a few years ago, that I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and fight and speak out against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
And you hear people “defending marriage.” Gay marriage is not a threat to heterosexual marriage. It is time for us to put that argument behind us.
You cannot separate the issue of civil rights. It is one of those absolute, immutable principles. You’ve got to have not just civil rights for some, but civil rights for all of us.
Terry Gross: And when you say not civil rights for some, you even mean civil rights for African-Americans and for gay people too?
Rep. Lewis: Not just civil rights for African-Americans or other minorities, but civil rights also for gay people.