It is said that there’s a strong woman behind every man of great achievement. While she was content to live in her husband’s shadow, Lillian Miles Lewis, I suspect, was a far greater contributor to her husband’s success both as a civil rights leader and as a member of Congress than the world will ever know.
Lillian Lewis, who died Dec. 31, following a brief hospitalization, was for wife of John Lewis, who has represented Georgia’s 5th congressional district since 1987.
I first knew John Lewis when he was a college student and civil rights worker. Years later, after he was elected to Congress, I got to know the woman he married.
I had the privilege of knowing Lillian Lewis when we both were members of an organization called Media Women. Particularly during the years when I served as the organization’s president, I was impressed by her intelligence and common sense approach to problem solving and project planning.
Occasionally, spouses came to Media Women events and I saw the more relaxed side of John Lewis, the side that enjoys a card game and a good joke. Moreover I saw the Lewises interact as a couple. I saw two people who genuinely enjoyed and admired each other.
I once teased her about being married to “a living saint,” a title bestowed on her husband by Time magazine. She answered me with a gentle smile. All married women—no matter how much they love and admire their husbands—know there are days when it’s hard to see the saint in their men. Still, I think the very qualities that prompted Time to select John Lewis for its “living saint” article were the ones that attracted her to him.
They shared a passion for justice and concern for the less fortunate, but hers was expressed in a more subdued way. While he made the big gestures, she worked at the details that are essential to the success of any movement. Her quiet, private persistence was a perfect complement to his public ardor.
Xernona Clayton, CEO of the Trumpet Awards Foundation Inc., who also was a member of Media Women, in a statement to Associated Press, said she regarded Lillian Lewis as her best friend. In addition to a shared interest in travel, literature and the arts, the two women bonded over a mutual passion for civil rights.
Clayton told AP that she introduced the couple, knowing Lillian Miles’ interest in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in John Lewis’ mentor, Martin Luther King Jr. King had personally guided Lewis when he was a youth into a leadership role in the movement. Lewis shared the podium with King the day he gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Lillian Lewis, according to Clayton, “knew every word of every speech that [King] made.”
Like every great social movement, the Civil Rights Movement had its widely known names and faces, supported by many courageous hard-working individuals who served behind the scenes. As she was carried to her final resting place, Lillian Miles Lewis was honored as such a vital wind beneath the wings of a great civil rights figure.