Berlin Sylvestre, Staff Writer
Sadly, Lillian Miles Lewis, wife of original freedom rider and current U.S. Representative John Lewis, passed away on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta. They had been married for 44 years.
As of yet, no information on the cause of death has been released. Congressman Lewis will be taking leave from “fiscal cliff” negotiations and returning to Atlanta.
The late Mrs. Lewis was no stranger to hard work and success. After graduating from Los Angeles High School (with Johnny Cochran no less), she received a bachelor’s degree in English from California State University. From there, she was accepted to the University of Southern California and earned a master’s degree in library science.
In 1960, she taught a class in Nigeria and developed a lifelong interest in Africa. Mrs. Lewis later returned as a Peace Corps volunteer and continued to teach for two years in Yaba, Nigeria.
After taking a position as librarian of Atlanta University (now known as Clark Atlanta University), she met her future husband at civil rights activist and TV personality Xernona Clayton’s New Year’s Eve party in 1967. Congressman Lewis was already an established presence and, indeed, legend in the civil rights movement.
Mrs. Clayton, along with another veteran of the fight for African-American civil rights, Dr. Bernard LaFayette, played matchmakers for the politically passionate duo. The two began a courtship, which later led to not only a marriage one year later, but also to a marriage of politics, as Mrs. Lewis took on a key role in her husband’s career, which began with his assignation as Atlanta City Councilman in 1981. She was his chief advisor from that moment forward.
It was truly a marriage of the minds and of the times.
“I was attracted to him before I knew him,” Mrs. Lewis said of her affections for Congressman Lewis, according to her obituary. “Every day and every night on the news was something about what was happening in the civil rights movement, so I felt like I knew him.”
In his memoir, “Walking With the Wind,” Lewis remarked of his wife: “She had always been very involved in politics, much more than I. She had been a delegate (supporting Shirley Chisholm) to the Democratic National Convention in 1972, and she was constantly active in a variety of local circles and organizations. She was outgoing, involved, intelligent and great in front of an audience — she could make a speech. She also knew how to organize, how to chair a meeting, the nitty-gritty stuff. When she finally said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go for it,’ that was enough. We were in.”
It is with a great sadness that we report this story, as we count Congressman Lewis (who has always been a staunch supporter of gay rights) not only an ally, but a close personal friend. Our deepest condolences go to their family and friends.