Lewis Statement on Marriage Equality, (30 September 2004) Washington D.C.


John Robert Lewis (February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020) was born on his family’s farm outside of Troy, Alabama. His parents, Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis, were sharecroppers. As a child, Lewis attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama.1 In his memoir, Lewis wrote of encounters with racist violence and inequitable segregation during his childhood. A childhood trip to Buffalo, New York helped him understand the severity of the segregation in Alabama when he saw for the first time how his relatives in Buffalo lived casually alongside their white neighbors.2

Growing up, Lewis aspired to be a preacher.3 He was a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Religion and Philosophy. In 1957, Lewis wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr. after being denied admittance to a whites-only college. King responded to Lewis’s letter, and the two met in 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama.4

While attending college in Nashville, Lewis participated in workshops on nonviolent action taught by pastor James Lawson. Inspired by Lawson, Lewis helped organize the Nashville Student Movement and their nonviolent sit-ins in the 1960s. It was during this time that Lewis began stressing the importance of getting into “good, necessary trouble”—a phrase that he espoused for the remainder of his life.5

In 1961, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. These Freedom Riders brought national attention to the lack of enforcement of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling—Boynton v. Virginia (1960)—that protected interstate passengers from state segregation laws.6 The Riders boarded two buses from Washington, D.C., en route to New Orleans, Louisiana. When the buses arrived in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Lewis and fellow Freedom Rider Albert Bigelow were viciously attacked when attempting to enter a segregated waiting area.7 A few days later, on May 14, 1961, a violent white mob ambushed another bus of Freedom Riders outside of Anniston, Alabama. The mob threw a firebomb into the bus’s window, trapping the riders inside with the smoke and flames. Though the bus’s fuel tank exploded, all of the riders aboard survived.8

Despite this violence, the Freedom Riders pressed on, only to be met by another merciless white mob in Birmingham, Alabama. Lewis was once again beaten in an attack that left one rider, William Barbee, paralyzed for the rest of his life.9 Lewis ended his time with the Freedom Rides in a Mississippi maximum-security prison, where he was arrested for violating local segregation laws. He was released 40 days later, and returned to Nashville to continue organizing with the Nashville Student Movement.10

In 1963, Lewis was selected as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Later that same year, Lewis participated in the 1963 March on Washington, where his speech preceded Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.11 In 1965, Lewis’s leadership was central to the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, where he suffered a skull fracture on March 7, 1965 when Alabama State Troopers attacked peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in what  became known as “Bloody Sunday” The march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama is credited, at least in part, for the eventual passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.12

Lewis was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986 as a Democrat representing the 5th district in Atlanta, Georgia.13 He was re-elected 16 times, and served until his passing in 2020. According to the Chicago Tribune, those congressional members and aides who knew Lewis best called him the “conscience of Congress.”14 Lewis often drew on his background as a civil rights leader to inform his policy decisions, public speeches, and political activism.

In 2004, during his eighth term in office, Lewis addressed the discrimination surrounding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, the law defined marriage, for federal purposes, as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”15 While individual states could still choose to allow same-and-similar sex couples to marry, the federal government and other states were not required to recognize those marriages as valid.

H.J. Res. 106 was introduced to the House of Representatives on September 23, 2004. The resolution, which was backed by President George W. Bush, sought to strengthen DOMA by amending the Constitution to define marriage in the United States as “only of the union of a man and a woman.”16 On September 30, 2004, Rep. Lewis would adamantly oppose Res. 106 on the House floor. In his speech, Lewis compared the bill to the federally-sanctioned discrimination that he had faced during the Civil Rights Movement.

H.J. Res. 106 died on the House floor later that same year after failing to receive a two-thirds majority vote (227-186).17 The Defense of Marriage Act was ultimately ruled unconstitutional in the 2013 Supreme Court decision United States v. Windsor.18 Two years later, the court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) that same-sex couples were guaranteed the right to marry in America under the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.19

Representative John Lewis passed away at the age of 80 on July 17, 2020, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. In his last public appearance, Lewis visited the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. in the heart of the protests over Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s murder.20 Lewis left behind a powerful legacy that inspired many to get into their own bit of “good trouble.”21



  1. John Lewis and Michael D’Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 29-43.
  2. Sean Kirst, “A Childhood Visit to Buffalo, a Deep Impact on American Legend,” The Buffalo News, July 19, 2020, https://buffalonews.com/news/local/column-a-childhood-visit-to-buffalo-a-deep-impact-on-american-legend/article_bb5c18b4-c9fb-11ea-950f-7377bc19041e.html.
  3. John Lewis, interview by John Lemley and Myke Johns, City Café, Atlanta, WABE-FM, August 28, 2013, https://www.wabe.org/congressman-john-lewis-march/.
  4. Vann R. Newkirk, II, “How Martin Luther King Jr. Recruited John Lewis,” The Atlantic, April 2, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/john-lewis-martin-luther-king-jr/552581/.
  5. Associated Press, “From Rep. John Lewis, Quotes in a Long Life of Activism,” Washington Post, July 18, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/from-rep-john-lewis-quotes-in-a-long-life-of-activism/2020/07/18/7ee684d8-c8b0-11ea-a825-8722004e4150_story.html.
  6. Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960).
  7. David Halberstam, The Children (New York: Fawcett Publications, 1999), 255-257.
  8. Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 144-146.
  9. Arsenault, Freedom Riders, 214.
  10. Lewis and D’Orso, Walking with the Wind, 169-178.
  11. “Congressman John Lewis,” American Civil Liberties Union, n.d., https://www.aclu.org/congressman-john-lewis.
  12. The National Archives, “John Lewis – March from Selma to Montgomery, ‘Bloody Sunday,’ 1965,” Eyewitness: American Originals from the National Archives, n.d.,  https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/eyewitness/html.php?section=2.
  13. Ken Rudin, “On This Day In 1986: John Lewis Beats Julian Bond In Battle of Civil Rights Titans,” Political Junkie with Ken Rudin, National Public Radio, Washington, DC: WAMU, September 2, 2009.
  14. Bill Barrow and Andrew Taylor, “John Lewis Hailed as the ‘Conscience of the Congress’ as He Lies in State at the Capitol,” Chicago Tribune, July 27, 2020, https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-nw-john-lewis-tribute-20200727-5w37iq6qinbqtkb67mpwplqnce-story.html.
  15. The Defense of Marriage Act, 1 U.S.C. § 7 and 28 U.S.C. § 1738C (1996).
  16. U.S. Congress, House, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States Relating to Marriage, Act of 2004, HJ Res 106, 108th Cong., 2nd sess., introduced in House September 23, 2004, https://www.congress.gov/bill/108th-congress/house-joint-resolution/106/text.
  17. U.S. Congress, House, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States Relating to Marriage, Act of 2004, HJ Res 106, 108th Cong., 2nd sess., introduced in House September 23, 2004, https://www.congress.gov/bill/108th-congress/house-joint-resolution/106/text.
  18. United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013).
  19. Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015).
  20. Jada Yuan, “Documenting John Lewis’s Last Public Appearance,” Washington Post, July 30, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/documenting-john-lewiss-last-public-appearance/2020/07/30/0b1d2d04-cab3-11ea-91f1-28aca4d833a0_story.htm
  21. Katharine Q. Seelye, “John Lewis, Towering Figure of Civil Rights Era, Dies at 80,” New York Times, July 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/john-lewis-dead.html.