Published: May 29th, 2009
From the early days of the civil rights movement, John Lewis was a
symbol of the fight against segregation, inequality and inhumanity.
He was publicly beaten senseless by state and local police on the
Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965.
A key figure in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis
has represented Atlanta and vicinity in the U.S. Congress for more
than 20 years. He has been called the "conscience of the U.S.
Congress." He is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological
Seminary, as well as Fisk University.
John Lewis opposes restrictions on the freedom of gays and lesbians,
particularly their freedom to marry.
His stand is rooted in the liberal triumphs of the 1960s. The civil
rights and voting rights acts, the advance of personal choice through
women's rights and the youth movement, and new and effective
environmental regulation all changed America permanently. The changes
redefined equality, expanding the definition of who is an equal human
being under the U.S. Constitution and the laws of the nation.
Teachers of history recognize that change whenever they query
students on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. No longer
will students settle for an abstract definition of equality in which
the male head of the household, under the concept of paterfamilias,
took responsibility for everyone in the household.
"All men are created equal" inevitably prompts students' protests
that neither women nor blacks nor Indians nor other minorities were
included in Jefferson's conception. For most students, the fact that
people in the 18th century lived by a different cultural standard
doesn't justify what they interpret as discrimination, discrimination
by powerful, dominating white males.
These students, who are the citizens of today and tomorrow, read
history differently than the generation of Southern bigots who
persecuted John Lewis, and the generations who argued that a single
source of authority could and should speak for those labeled
dependents. These young citizens focus on Elizabeth Cady Stanton's
reworking of the declaration in 1848 to read that "all men and women
are created equal." They are impressed with Abraham Lincoln's call at
Gettysburg in 1863 for a "new birth of freedom," the abolition of
slavery. They celebrate the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 as the
beginning of a redress of the legitimate grievances of America's
In the history of Alaska, they note that the first law passed by the
first Alaska territorial Legislature granted the voting franchise to
women. They note that the Alaska District Court established the right
of an Alaska Native to vote the year before the Indian Citizenship
Act. They react with pride and approval that the Alaska territorial
Legislature, lobbied uncompromisingly by Elizabeth Peratrovich,
passed an anti-discrimination act in 1945, nine years before the U.S.
Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. And they note
also that in 1970, at the height of the reform era, Alaska, under the
courageous leadership of Sen. John Rader, became one of only five
states to make abortion available upon the request of a woman and her doctor.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, John Lewis, who aggressively
supported Barack Obama, was asked about gay rights. His statement is
powerful and arresting.
"It is unfortunate," he said, "that a segment of our society fails to
see that we all should be treated like human beings ... I fought too
long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not
to stand up and speak out against discrimination based on sexual orientation."
He continued, "You call it what you want, discrimination is
discrimination and we have to speak up and speak out against
discrimination. You have too many people in this society saying
they're against same-sex marriage. If people fall in love and want to
get married, it is their business."
Like John Lewis, many students today equate gay rights and civil
rights, gay rights and minority rights. The history of American
equality would suggest that the future lies with them, and not with
those who would condemn and attempt to curtail rights based on sexual
Stephen Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.