Sixty-five feet high, the mural of John Lewis towers over Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn district. Never has the outsized tribute seemed more appropriate.
On Saturday, mourners gathered in the shadow of the civil rights icon’s famous image, paying their respects to the man and his legacy.
“I moved to Atlanta because of John Lewis,” said Vernon Johnson, 59. When he retired from the military, Johnson said he wanted to raise his children in a city where they could connect with their African American heritage.
Johnson, who was shaped by the Marine Corps, said he felt a connection to Lewis because the congressman “was on the front lines, fighting for change.”
His leadership won’t be easily replaced, said Edie Howard, who drove from Marietta with her husband to visit the mural. She said Lewis stepped up and helped fill the void created when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died.
“He was like the father of the civil rights movement, a mentor to so many,” Howard said. “It’s such a great loss, not only for Black America but for the country as a whole.”
Credit: Steve Schaefer
Credit: Steve Schaefer
Denise Harris woke up Saturday to the news of Lewis’ death. She said it hit her harder than she would’ve expected.
“I just broke down in tears,” said Harris, 62. Determined to give tribute to one of her heroes, Harris arrived at the mural, at the intersection of Auburn Avenue and Jesse Hill Junior Drive, with a bouquet of flowers and a silent prayer.
“To know he’s no longer with us is devastating,” she said. “It’s disheartening. We need his voice now more than ever. We can only hope new leaders will rise in his place.”
Matt Broshar, 28, found out about Lewis’ passing from his brother, Daniel. They said growing up in Atlanta gave them a fuller appreciation of the human rights activist.
“It’s impossible to look at the history of Atlanta and the history of the civil rights movement without seeing John Lewis,” Matt Broshar said.
Lewis’ death seems almost unreal, he said.
“He felt invincible,” said Matt Broshar, choking back tears. “You really felt like he would keep going forever.”
Daniel Broshar said the 80-year-old Georgia congressman never lost his relevance.
“He remained current in his activism,” said Daniel Broshar, 31. “There’s only so many true American heroes, and he was one of them.”
Amid the flowers and candles placed at the foot of the mural there were personal reflections of how Lewis changed lives.
“I told you of my struggles as a gay boy growing up in the North Georgia mountains,” read one anonymous tribute, written out on a small poster. “You called me young brother, gave me a hug and told me to stay strong. It was the honor of my life. Rest in peace.”
Tracy Mack of Atlanta became emotional as she recalled her one encounter with Lewis, right after he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011.
“I was in awe of him,” Mack said. “He was so humble, so kind. I’ll never forget it.”
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