Lillian Miles Lewis, U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ wife, friend and political adviser, died Monday at Emory University Hospital. She was 73.
Close friend Xernona Clayton said Lillian Lewis had been ill for an extended period of time but encouraged her husband to continue with his career.
“She’d kind of get on him about telling people she was sick,” Clayton said. “She didn’t want that to be the focus. She wanted him to do his work.”
A funeral is planned for 11 a.m. Monday at Ebenezer Baptist Church, 407 Auburn Avenue, Atlanta. Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home, Historic West End Chapel, is in charge of arrangements.
President Obama called Rep. Lewis on Monday to express his condolences, the White House said.
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Lewis met her future husband when he was already a civil rights legend, and she played a key role in his transition to a career in politics. Many thought the couple were a perfect match.
“She was a feisty lady,” said Temi Silver, an event planner and longtime friend. “He was so sweet and gentle; he needed her to take care of his back. And she was the one to do it.”
Lillian Lewis, whose father owned a small contracting business, attended Los Angeles High School with the late Johnny Cochran and received an undergraduate degree in English from then-California State College at Los Angeles and a master’s degree in library science at the University of Southern California.
She developed a lifelong interest in Africa when she taught in a student program in Nigeria in 1960, returning later as a Peace Corps volunteer to teach for two years in Yaba, Nigeria. It was after taking a job as a librarian at Atlanta University that she met her husband at a 1967 New Year’s Eve party at the home of Clayton, a television personality and civil rights activist. Clayton and another movement veteran, Dr. Bernard LaFayette, played matchmaker.
“I figured he needed a partner like Lillian, and Lillian needed someone who was moving into such important areas,” Clayton said. “She was a sober-minded, level-headed intellectual.”
Clayton remembered her friend as a voracious reader with a wide-ranging intellect, who fascinated the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by being able to quote his speeches verbatim.
She and John Lewis began a courtship, often double-dating with Julian and Alice Bond, movement friends who would become bitter rivals when Bond and Lewis opposed each other in a 1986 congressional race.
The Lewises were married in 1968.
During their courtship and the early years of their marriage, John Lewis didn’t have a driver’s license, LaFayette recalled: “So Lillian was literally his chauffeur as well.” She didn’t seem to mind.
“I was attracted to him before I knew him,” Lewis said years later. “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 recalled how his wife helped him decide to run for Congress in 1977 — a race he lost to Wyche Fowler — and became his chief adviser.
“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 ’72, 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,” Lewis wrote.
Lillian Lewis continued to play a major behind-the-scenes role in her husband’s career, which progressed from winning a seat on the Atlanta City Council in 1981 to his upset victory over Bond in the 1986 congressional race.
When a 1991 redistricting committee hearing that affected his district stretched into the wee hours of the morning, she was at her husband’s side, keeping a wary eye on the map as the legislators made their changes.
While Lewis forged his political career, his wife continued her career as an educator with an international perspective. She was associate director of the Institute for International Affairs and Development at Atlanta University from 1984 to 1989, a job that called on her to help develop a major in international studies, with an emphasis in Africa and the Caribbean. In a 1984 Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, she called the assignment “the moment I’ve been waiting for.” From 1989 to 2003, she was director of external affairs in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at Clark Atlanta University.
Mrs. Lewis is survived by her husband and her son, John-Miles Lewis.
Former staff writer Tom Baxter contributed to this article.