With the rest of the nation, we mourn the loss of Representative John Lewis, who died late Friday night after a brief illness. He was a man of deep conviction who dedicated his life to the ideals of social justice and the vision of a “beloved community” that would uphold the dignity and value of every human being. He was the youngest of more than a dozen speakers at the 1963 March on Washington, and the last survivor from that group. To the end, he was a champion of civil rights and human freedom with an unwavering optimism about the future of our nation.
It was our good fortune that Representative Lewis looked kindly upon our work and proved himself a strong supporter of animal protection during more than three decades of service in the Congress. I was humbled and fortunate to meet him both in the course of his congressional work intersecting with our issues and at events where I heard him tell his rich, purposeful life story. I will never forget the impression he made upon me. He possessed both a Zen like quality and a fire right below the surface, and you just couldn’t escape the feeling that you were in the presence of an individual with great moral weight and someone who lived a life that showed it. For me and my colleagues at the Humane Society Legislative Fund, it’ll always feel good to contemplate the fact that one of the nation’s strongest advocates for human dignity and worth was also a strong supporter of animal protection work.
Rep. Lewis with his cats (photo courtesy of @repjohnlewis)
The congressman loved to tell the story of his youthful ministry to the chickens he tended on his family’s farm in Alabama. An aspiring preacher and orator, he used to practice his sermons and speeches on them, and he never forgot his feelings of mercy and affection. Not surprisingly, this carried over into his strong and reliable support for animal protection legislation in the Congress. He was inclined to let others take the lead on such measures, but he was quick to cosponsor them and consistent in his voting support, earning a lifetime score of 87 on our Humane Scorecard. He saw a natural fit between the treatment of animals and the values of his civil rights creed. In his mind, cruelty was cruelty, violence was violence, and suffering was suffering, and the morally sensitive person would oppose them no matter who their victims might be. To have such a champion in our midst was to have the wind at our backs whenever we approached the members of congress who loved and admired him, and they were legion. That was very good for our work, and also good for our spirits.
Congressman Lewis was a cat lover, and his affection for animals is evident in a number of well-circulated photographs. At the same time, it was always clear to me that he saw the treatment of animals as a matter of basic justice. This was not just a beautiful consistency. It was an example for the ages, and the greatest of gifts to our cause. His earthly labors are over, but his legacy will be with us forever. Like the countless millions worldwide who saw him as an exemplar of the continuing struggle for civil rights, those of us who seek justice for animals stand on the shoulders of this true giant. And on the occasion of his passing we honor him as we redouble our commitment to his legacy of justice.