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Civil rights activist now focuses on gays

Steve Haycox

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 indigenous people.

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 orientation.

Stephen Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.


Steve Haycox
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