“We’ve come too far, we’ve made too much progress and we’re not going back. We are going forward.” – Congressman John Lewis, August 22, 2018 at the renaming ceremony of Freedom Parkway as the John Lewis Freedom Parkway.
Most of my belongings were still in boxes and I was using Google Maps to find the Publix Supermarket that was only three blocks away when I read they were renaming Freedom Parkway. How could I find my way around this town if the names of streets keep changing? But a few sentences later I learned it was to honor John Lewis and then it seemed too small of a gesture. Only the parkway? Mayor Bottoms should have renamed the whole dang city Lewislanta. Imagine the perseverance of this man to skirt death on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge fighting for the right to vote, to then be elected to the House of Representatives two decades later.
He was more than the Georgia Congressman representing the fifth district or Atlanta’s benevolent grandfather. John Lewis was in effect the pope to Dr. King’s messiah. I knew of Congressman Lewis and his gospel of ‘good trouble’ before I moved to Atlanta. I had seen him in television interviews, always dapper, his head shaved and shiny where batons once struck. Physically he seemed diminutive, but when he spoke, he grew larger, stressing the important words, like freedom and equality and loose with the pronunciation of the words that didn’t matter, like North Carolina or Louisiana. But now I lived here, which meant that the last of the Big Six—a term used to identify the six leaders of the most prominent black organizations at the height of civil rights movement—was representing me. I felt wholly unworthy.
It also made me scrutinize my voting record. Every other politician I darkened a circle for looked like a shitty lawyer with a good haircut compared to Lewis. But things were about to turn around for me, because I arrived in an election year and I was going to have the honor of voting for this icon…even though he was unopposed was already declared the winner. It was really more about me than him.
I filled out the appropriate forms and waited patiently for my confirmation that identified which of the three neighborhood churches was my polling place. And then it turned out I lived in Georgia’s fourth district, missing John Lewis’ district by an exit ramp. Womp, womp. No offense to Representative Johnson.
Nonetheless, I buoyed all of my enthusiasm for a history-making vote for the first African-American woman governor, Stacey Abrams. There was so much excitement wherever she went. I remember during that year’s Pride parade, a bunch of us stood on the roof of the Fox Theatre and relentlessly yelled her name until she looked up from her convertible. It was a lot of effort for only a wave, but she represented a glimmer of hope in the dumpster fire that we were living under the Trump era.
She faced a sub-par opponent in Secretary of State Brian Kemp. He was a poor debater, an avid Trump fan and was running on antiquated Republican tropes, like guns for fetuses and binary bathrooms for climate change deniers. So boring. What was different and bold was how he refused to resign his post as Secretary of State during the campaign. In essence, he was refereeing his own contest. Even when it was reported that he was holding up more than 53,000 voter registration applications, with more than 75 percent of those belonging to minorities, he refused to quit. In the end, Abrams lost by less than the number of fans at an Atlanta United soccer match, something like 54,000 votes. Womp, womp again.
As Brian Kemp’s name replaced Nathan Deal’s on the Welcome to Georgia signs, Stacey Abrams cleared her desk and went to work. Methodically and with incredible purpose, she set out to prevent voter suppression in future elections. Two years later, she was heavily credited for flipping Georgia in favor of the Democratic candidates for president and senate. I never doubted that they would pull it off. Not because I have any political insight, but because resurgence is the secret sauce of all Atlantans. They have a stick-to-itiveness that is unlike anything I’ve seen. When you come from a stock like mine that builds rafts and bails at the first hint of inconvenience, you can’t help but be in awe that kind of grit. And don’t mistake their quiet and polite disposition with inaction. They are plotting and planning, and right when you’ve counted them out, they emerge from the brimstone.
So, don’t count Stacey Abrams out of the running to be governor just yet.
Mayor William B. Hartsfield after only serving one term got beat by 83 votes in his re-election bid. Then, he came back and won the next one and the next one and the next one, serving for twenty years. Mayor Maynard H. Jackson, Jr. got trounced when he ran for senate and five years later, he was elected as the first African-American mayor of Atlanta and any major southern city with 60 percent of the vote. And these are the guys they named the airport after, so there’s no telling what she’ll get. Stacelanta? Georgiabrams?
It’s a mantra here to get up (or ‘rise up’ as fans beg the Atlanta Falcons), and try again. When General Sherman’s army left the city in ashes, Atlantans got to work. Two years after the war ended, Atlanta was back better than before. All around the city, like subliminal Coca-Cola ads, you’ll find golden phoenixes on streetlights, bronze phoenixes on water meter covers and even a masterful topiary of a phoenix at the Botanical Garden. It’s more than the symbol of the city, it’s an instruction manual.
Want to catch a glimpse of a phoenix made of peanuts? Drive down the John Lewis Freedom Parkway and you’ll end up at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. This man made it to the pinnacle of his political career and bombed. By all accounts he choked and left office as a mediocre one-term President. Did he retire to a farm and pursue his passion for finger painting? No. He put out the embers still glowing on his polyester suit and set off to build houses for poor people. When that wasn’t enough, he helped negotiate deals with shady countries and somehow had time to write a dozen books. After two decades of quietly plugging away at making a real difference in the world, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Say the name Jimmy Carter anywhere in this city and see how people genuflect.
And what of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King? When I first learned of him, he was a beloved preacher with a dream that gave us a day off of school. Never would it have occurred to me that his last year on Earth was so fraught with controversy until I read Tavis Smiley’s Death of a King. Dr. King denounced the Johnson administration over the Vietnam War, and was iced out by the government, the news media and even the civil rights movement itself. It wasn’t until years after his death that Americans came around to embrace his anti-war views. And it was thanks to the vision of his devoted wife, Coretta, who worked to preserve his legacy.
When you walk down Auburn Avenue and visit The King Center, know it was Mrs. King who made it possible. And what a feat it was. From the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church to Dr. King’s actual birth home to the exhibitions in Freedom Hall to the crypt where Dr. and Mrs. King rest, she managed to protect it all. The magnitude of this becomes even greater when you realize public opinion of him was at an all-time low when he was murdered. You know, if you stand just the right way while paying your respects, you’ll notice that their tombs seem to hover above the Eternal Flame. Perhaps that wasn’t the intended symbolism, but I couldn’t help but see the phoenix there too.
I kicked myself for not being there the day Freedom Parkway was renamed for a glimpse of John Lewis. I mistakenly thought I would have many more opportunities to see him, but aside from his portrait on the side of a Downtown building, I never had the pleasure.
Most of my belongings were still in boxes and I was using Google Maps to find the Harris Teeter that was only three blocks away when I saw on the news that John Lewis had gone to Black Lives Matter Plaza in D.C. Mayor Bowser invited him out there to see the freshly painted message in all caps that extended out from Lafayette Park like a middle finger to the White House. It was to be John Lewis’ last public appearance.
I was finally able to see Congressman John Lewis, albeit for a moment, when his hearse made its way to the Capitol where he was to lie in state. It was also the first and only time I felt like an Atlantan.
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.” – Congressman John Lewis, from an essay he wrote shortly before his death, July 17, 2020.