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‘They Didn’t Just Love Him. They Knew Him.’ Young Atlanta Activists Mourn John Lewis.

2020-07-18 23:17:30

ATLANTA — By the time the Rev. James Woodall came to know John Lewis, Mr. Lewis was already a longtime congressman and a towering figure in the civil rights movement, one whose legacy loomed large over Atlanta.

At 26, Mr. Woodall is one of the youngest leaders in the N.A.A.C.P., serving as the president for the organization in Georgia. Despite the more than half a century that separated them, Mr. Woodall said he identified with Mr. Lewis as an inspirational leader who at a very young age worked to change the world.

The fight that Mr. Lewis led, Mr. Woodall said, was now his.

“I have been a student of his work from the seventh grade,” said Mr. 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.”

“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.”

In Mr. 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 chairman 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Lewis, remembered him trying to place an order in a Burger King drive-through. “The lady, through the speaker, said, ‘Is that you, John Lewis?’ ” Mr. 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.

Yet the recent turbulence has illuminated the disparities that exist in the city, invigorating activists over months of protests. The death of Mr. Brooks in June prompted the resignation of the city’s police chief, Erika Shields, and for Mayor Bottoms to push for changes in use-of-force procedures. The outbreak of the coronavirus has also drawn attention to glaring gaps in health care, as African-Americans have been among the hardest hit in Georgia.

Mr. Lewis’s sense of defiance — against the police officers who beat him, or more recently, against cancer — has served as a lesson for the younger leaders who are coming up behind him, they said.

“He was unbelievably brave and he was willing to keep working on things even if it didn’t seem possible to win,” Ms. Amussen said. “Whereas now, people only want to get involved in things they can win. But he was willing to do the day in, day out, grinding it out work that has to be done.”

Mr. Aydin’s first job working in Mr. Lewis’s office entailed sifting through the onslaught of mail that arrived: complaints, pleas to vote one way or another, requests for help from constituents.

“It was almost as low as you could go,” he said. “But for John Lewis, the mail was something sacred.”

Mr. Lewis told Mr. Aydin that he connected with Dr. King after a mentor encouraged him to write to him. Dr. King responded and sent a bus ticket.

Mr. Aydin grew close with Mr. Lewis in working for him about 13 years, and even worked with him on a series of graphic novels about the congressman’s life.

“His way of mentoring was to do something with you,” Mr. Aydin said. “And you tried to hang on and pick up as much as you could, and if you were lucky, you kind of got up to speed with him.”

Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio contributed reporting from New York.


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