"Congressman, Civil Rights Icon John Lewis" Excerpts from Fresh Air Interview
Rep. JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): When I was growing up in rural Alabama, it was impossible for me to register to vote. I didn’t become a registered voter until I moved to Tennessee, to Nashville as a student.
GROSS: Why was it impossible?
Rep. LEWIS: Black men and women were not allowed to register to vote. My own mother, my own father, my grandfather and my uncles and aunts could not register to vote because each time they attempted to register to vote, they were told they could not pass the literacy test. And many people were so intimidated, so afraid that they will lose their jobs, they will be evicted from the farms, and they just – they almost gave up.
GROSS: Your parents were sharecroppers. Now…
Rep. LEWIS: My mother and father and many of my relatives had been sharecroppers. They had been tenant farmers like so many people in the South. They knew the stories that had occurred. They knew places in Alabama where people were evicted from their farm, from the plantation. They read about, they heard about incidents in Tennessee where people were evicted from the farms and plantations back in 1956, in 1957 in West Tennessee between Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee.
GROSS: Now because of that did you – did your parents tell you not to bother to try to vote because it would be dangerous, they might lose their farm? I mean, you were – you were educated, you could certainly pass the literacy test.
Rep. LEWIS: My parents told me in the very beginning as a young child when I raised the question about segregation and racial discrimination, they told me not to get in the way, not to get in trouble, not to make any noise. But we had people that were educated. We had teachers, we had high school principals, we had people teaching in colleges and university in Tuskegee, Alabama. But they were told they failed the so-called literacy test…
GROSS: I want to quote something that you wrote in an op-ed piece in October 2003. And this was about gay rights and the right for gay people to marry. You 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 bigotry.
Now, I’ve heard some African American leaders say that it’s wrong to make – I’m not quoting you here. I’m saying this part myself. Your quote has ended. And I’m saying, I’ve heard some African American leaders say that it’s wrong to make any connection between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement because discrimination against African Americans and discrimination against gays are completely – 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, at 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 one of those absolute, immutable principle – we got to have not just civil rights for some but civil rights for all of us.
GROSS: When you say not just civil rights for some, you even mean not just civil rights for African American but for gay people too?
Rep. LEWIS: Not just civil rights for African American, other minorities, but civil rights also for gay people.
Congressman John Lewis grew up in Alabama, the son of sharecroppers. His experience growing up in the deep South led to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement where he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963-1966. In 1987, John Lewis became a Democratic congressman representing Georgia. As a politician he has continued to fight for civil rights causes. The excerpt below is taken from a 2009 interview by Terry Gross for the NPR program Fresh Air. It describes his youth, and work to end all types of discrimination.