By Irene Monroe, published in Bay Windows, August 13, 2020.
Civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who died on July 17th of pancreatic cancer, spent his life advocating equal access to the ballot for all Americans. Lewis nearly lost his life on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when he attempted to lead a nonviolent voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery. He was beaten at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, resulting in a fractured skull. Fifty-five years later, on July 26, was Lewis’s final crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a horse-drawn carriage carried his flag-draped casket.
John Lewis, the ‘conscience of Congress, preached a lived theology and activism of “good trouble.” Good trouble was the work of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and it was an expression of Lewis’s faith. The immediacy of his “good trouble” was heard in his jeremiads, inviting all to action to right wrongs. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” Lewis repeatedly said throughout his lifetime.
Lewis’s clarion call for “good trouble” advocated for LGBTQ civil rights, too. The then living Black Civil Rights icons who gave full-throated support for LGBTQ struggles as a legitimate civil rights were Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond, and John Lewis. Lewis’s advocacy for LGBTQ rights was informed during his formative years in the Civil Rights Movement, understanding all human rights need protection. In advising LGBTQ activists to make “good trouble,” Lewis stated the following:
“If we are going to continue to make progress, whether it is for marriage equality or discrimination against members of the gay community in the workplace, you have to continue to be physical, continue to speak up and speak out. To find a way to do what I call ‘making some noise, getting in the way,’ and educating people and sensitizing them.”
Lewis spoke out for LGBTQ rights that went against his fellow clergymen. For example, Lewis advocated for marriage equality. He thought to employ the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Loving v. Virginia decision affirming the freedom to marry as a “basic civil right” of every American extend to LGBTQ Americans. As a theologically trained, ordained Baptist minister, his stance incensed Black clergy, one of the largest groups in opposition, here and across the country. “The gay community is pimping the civil rights movement and the history. In the view of many, it’s racist at worst, cynical at best,” the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a local African-American Boston minister and then president of the all-male National Ten Point Leadership Foundation, told The Boston Globe in 2003.
As a counterpunch to Rivers’s homophobic position, Lewis penned an October 23, 2003 op-ed in the Boston Globe the following week titled “At a crossroads on gay unions.” His statement highlighted the connection between black and LGBTQ civil rights struggles:
“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.”
Lewis’s clarion calls for “good trouble” forced us to look at where we are in our democracy- whether it was advocating for black civil rights or LGBTQ civil rights. In this presidential election season, “good trouble” would be making sure all Americans have access to the ballot.
To honor Lewis’s life and legacy and work of “good trouble,” Democratic lawmakers want to pass the 2019 Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) he fought for, and name it the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020. The VRAA would prohibit discrimination against people of color and other marginalized communities, like LGBTQ voters, by assigning election observers to states or municipalities with repeated problems- especially those with a history of discrimination. It would give the federal government the ability to take action against them if the discrimination continued.
These are needed safeguards in this upcoming election. Lewis championed the bill to reverse the deleterious damage done by the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Regrettably, the Republican-controlled Senate ignored Lewis’ request.
The GOP tactics to dissuade people of color to the polls pose challenges for many transgender voters, too, who have transitioned but do not have a government-issued photo ID reflecting their gender. The Williams Institute at UCLA found that ahead of this November’s election, over 378,000 “voter-eligible transgender people do not have IDs that reflect their correct name and/or gender.”
John Lewis said, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” To honor him, “good trouble” this November election would be to vote out our present Republican thugocracy. As LGBTQ voters, we don’t have to capitulate to the powers that be, because the power of the people is greater than the people in power.
Published in Bay Windows, August 13, 2020.