‘They didn’t just love him. They knew him.’ Atlanta activists mourn John Lewis.
By Rick Rojas
By the time the Rev. James Woodall came to know John Lewis, Lewis was already a longtime congressman and a towering figure in the civil rights movement, one whose legacy loomed large over Atlanta.
At 26, Woodall is one of the youngest leaders in the NAACP, serving as the president for the organization in Georgia. Despite the more than half a century that separated them, Woodall said he identified with Lewis as an inspirational leader who at a very young age worked to change the world.
The fight that Lewis led, Woodall said, was now his.
“I have been a student of his work from the seventh grade,” said Woodall, who grew up just outside of Atlanta. “He really was not OK with waiting for justice, he was not OK with incremental changes to a system that, in many regards, wanted him dead.”
Lewis, who died Friday at the age of 80, had long served as a kind of connective tissue, linking the lions of the civil rights movement to the new generation of activists in the city who stood on their shoulders. He was one of the few remaining leaders from that era, and his death has left many in Atlanta wrestling with what feels like a gaping void even as they try and push forward his ideals.
“The most humble of heroes, the most brave of giants,” Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta’s mayor, said in a remembrance she posted on Twitter, adding, “He was my Congressman and my best example of true servant leadership.”
Lewis’ death has also added a layer of anguish to the turmoil that has rankled Atlanta for months. Protests broke out in the city, as in the rest of the country, after George Floyd died in the custody of the Minneapolis police in May, and the unrest intensified after Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by the Atlanta police in June.
During these protests, a contingent of younger activists has emerged that is generations removed from the efforts of the past but still contending with the same struggles that their parents and grandparents faced.
In Lewis, they saw a kindred spirit. He had been the youngest of the major figures in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was just 23 when he gave one of the most fiery speeches at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Others in his cohort pleaded with him to soften some of the most heated language in his speech.)
He moved to Atlanta in 1963 to become chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and made the city his home.
“He was never condescending or shaming toward younger people and their choice of actions, the way they decided to protest, what they were protesting,” said Jasmine Amussen, an editor of Burnaway, a magazine focused on arts and activism in the South.
“It was very reassuring and loving,” she added. “It almost feels like, I don’t know.” She paused as her voice broke. “This is a really tough time for this city.”
In Atlanta, Lewis has been given the kind of tributes reserved for the most prominent people in the city’s history: His face fills a 65-foot mural on the side of a downtown building declaring him a hero, and across the interstate, a busy thoroughfare was named the John Lewis Freedom Parkway in 2018. An exhibit showcasing his life and work greets visitors at Atlanta’s international airport.
Yet many in Atlanta became accustomed to seeing him in the flesh — shopping for produce and shaking hands at the Publix supermarket on Cascade Road and stopping in at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. (When Jo Carter, its longtime server and an Atlanta institution in her own right, retired in 2017, he was at the party.) Clerks at department stores would tip him off when suits were going on sale; he had a limited budget as a public servant, aides said, but he was also thrilled by a bargain.
Andrew Aydin, who worked as a policy adviser and digital director for Lewis, remembered him trying to place an order in a Burger King drive-thru. “The lady, through the speaker, said, “‘Is that you, John Lewis?’” Aydin recalled.
“I think that’s what people misunderstand,” he added. “They see the icon, but they didn’t just love him. They knew him. This wasn’t a guy hanging out at the Commerce Club. He was out in the streets. He was eating in the same place as everyone else.”
Atlanta had a preview of its pain now a week ago, when false reports circulated that he had died, spurring mournful social media posts and tributes before his office clarified that he was still alive.
When his death was announced late Friday, it came as many in the city were grieving the Rev. C.T. Vivian, another pioneering figure and associate of Martin Luther King Jr., who also died in Atlanta.
The Rev. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of King, posted photographs of both men on Twitter, saying: “Elders, now ancestors. Hallelujah.”
They were part of a generation that molded Atlanta as it grew into what has come to be regarded as a “Black mecca,” a capital for culture and commerce, home to some of the most prestigious Black colleges and universities. African Americans gravitated to the city from across the South, drawn by a chance for upward mobility and a sense that the racial hostility that was onerous in so much of the region was less prevalent.
“That gave the Atlanta movement a very special kind of flavor and power, and a capacity to try and produce social change,” said Barry Lee, a longtime history professor at Morehouse College.