Coretta Scott King and Rep. John Lewis Were Early Allies of the LGBTQ Movement
The world recently lost a long-time LGBTQ+ advocate and the co-organizer of the first HRC Atlanta Gala Dinner, Winston Johnson, who died in May at age 79. Johnson was born in Valdosta, Georgia, in 1941 and said he knew by age 12 that he was gay, but he told no one for many years. He met his long-time partner Leon Allen in the ‘60s, and they were together for 42 years until Leon passed away. They kept their relationship a secret for decades, as homosexuality was a “firing offense” at Eastern Airlines. Further, as Johnson noted, they could not get insurance, flying benefits, or loans as a couple, unlike straight couples.
Coretta Scott King first met Winston Johnson at the Atlanta Airport on April 5, 1968 as she was returning from Memphis with the body of her assassinated husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Johnson was one of three Eastern Airlines employees trusted with taking good care of VIPs who flew with Eastern. On that day, he was hosting Abigail McCarthy, the wife of presidential candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy at the airport during a long layover. When he asked her if she knew King, McCarthy replied that they were good friends. Johnson took her to meet the plane carrying King when it landed. King and McCarthy met and embraced, and then King invited McCarthy to come to her home and visit. Johnson drove McCarthy to the King home, where she spent an hour or so in the home consoling King, among other friends like Harry Belafonte.
That was the beginning of a close relationship between Johnson and King. He became her Eastern Airlines personal concierge, taking her to the airport and back home often, as she travelled to raise money for the King Center and to advocate for a national holiday that would honor the birthday of Dr. King. As he got to know King, Johnson and his partner Allen started volunteering at the King Center and for the Atlanta chapters of the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund.
In 1986, Johnson was devastated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, upholding Georgia’s anti-sodomy criminal law and ruling that the Constitution did not protect private, sexual acts between two consenting adults. He decided to disclose to King that he and Allen were gay and a long-time couple. King responded that she had known that from early on. Johnson then asked her if she would do something really important for the LGBTQ movement and speak in favor of LGBTQ rights at the upcoming National Human Rights Campaign Dinner in New York City. Johnson recalled her saying: “Tell me where and when, and I’ll be there. I know Martin would be with you on this, and he may have beaten me to it.” That speech in 1986 was King’s first public support of LGBTQ rights, a cause she championed until her death in 2006.
Johnson said he wasn’t that surprised that King so quickly agreed to his request, as he knew that she was close to Bayard Rustin, an openly gay man who had worked closely with Dr. King and was the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Johnson and Allen then organized the first HRC Atlanta Gala Dinner in 1988, and the organization established an award in their names to honor their service to the LGBTQ community. Johnson passed away in Atlanta on May 11 after a long battle with cancer.
As a congressman, John Lewis was a long-time supporter of the LGBTQ community, no doubt partly because of his work with Bayard Rustin in the Civil Rights Movement. He wrote a piece for the Boston Globe in which he noted:
“I’ve heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry. I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
A few weeks later, the Massachusetts Supreme Court became the first state court to recognize gay marriages. Rep. Lewis regularly appeared at LGBTQ events, such as the annual October Atlanta Pride Parade, long before many other elected officials.
As we know, sadly we lost Rep. Lewis and many other Civil Rights icons in 2020, when he lost his battle with cancer on July 17, 2020. The hearse and caravan carrying Rep. Lewis’ casket to his celebration of life service at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church made a special trip through the heart of Midtown, home to many LGBTQ residents and businesses. It stopped in the middle of the intersection of Piedmont Avenue and Tenth Street, where the permanent crosswalks on all four sides are painted proudly in the Gay Pride Flag colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Hundreds of members of the local LGBTQ community and their allies and other fans of Rep. Lewis turned out one last time to say thanks and goodbye.
Allies do make a difference, and thanks to Coretta Scott King and Rep. John Lewis for actively allying with strong advocates like Bayard Rustin and Winston Johnson to build strong relationships that take a stand for equality, justice, and change for all.