Dec 31, 2012

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.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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.

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