Gala event will launch foundation honoring John and Lillian Lewis

John and Lillian Lewis at a campaign rally at the International Ballroom in April 1977. A gala Tuesday will mark the launch of the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation. (Dwight Ross Jr./AJC staff)

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John and Lillian Lewis at a campaign rally at the International Ballroom in April 1977. A gala Tuesday will mark the launch of the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation. (Dwight Ross Jr./AJC staff)

WASHINGTON — The launch of the foundation honoring one of Atlanta’s most iconic figures and his wife is being marked with a gala Tuesday night attended by elected officials and celebrities.

The people behind the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation know that the former congressman and civil rights leader may be better known, but they want to ensure that his wife is remembered for the role she played in his success, too.

“He constantly said that he is who he is because she was her own person,” family friend Helene Gayle said. “She was vocal; she was a match for him. She was a supportive spouse, but she also had her own opinions.”

Gayle moved to Atlanta in the 1980s to serve as an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that is where she met Lillian Lewis. They struck up a friendship that endured as both the Lewises and Gayle rose to prominence in their respective fields.

As Gayle’s career blossomed, she would periodically turn to Lillian Lewis for support and encouragement. She died in late 2012, about eight years before her husband.

Today, Gayle is preparing to take the reins at one of the nation’s most prominent and successful historically Black institutions: Spelman College.

“Just having that person who you admire and look up to and see as a role model and know that they believe in you — it matters,” Gayle said of Lewis. “It’s part of the reason why I’m making this career decision late in life that I never, never really envisioned.”

Gayle is among the many prominent Georgians set to attend Tuesday’s gala. Others on the guest list include U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn.

Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard, who christened the Navy ship named after John Lewis and struck up a friendship with him, will serve as the host.

The event will also serve as a launch for one of the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation’s initiatives, a speaker series called Good Trouble Talk. Veteran journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault will moderate the inaugural talk with Grammy-winning rapper Common, who will also close out the gala with a performance.