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Monuments to honor John Lewis’ legacy in the works

Sculptor Gregory Johnson work on a statue of John Lewis made with 800 pounds of clay.

Statue of civil rights icon will be first unveiled at Cook Park

Some 40 miles north of downtown Atlanta, in a Cumming home art studio, John Lewis is rising out of 800 pounds of clay.

Meticulously, sculptor Gregory Johnson shapes the tiny eagles dangling off the Presidential Medal of Freedom draped around the neck of Lewis.

“I want to get this right,” said Johnson. “I want this to look like he is gonna step off that pedestal and shake your hand.”

072820 Cumming: Sculptor Gregory Johnson begins working on the facial details of his one and one-third life size statue of John Lewis made with 800 pounds of clay that will be cast in bronze at his studio on Tuesday, July 28, 2020 in Cumming.    Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
072820 Cumming: Sculptor Gregory Johnson begins working on the facial details of his one and one-third life size statue of John Lewis made with 800 pounds of clay that will be cast in bronze at his studio on Tuesday, July 28, 2020 in Cumming. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

ExploreJohn Lewis: A Founding Father of a better America

Across the country, ideas are being floated for the best ways to permanently honor the life and legacy of a civil rights giant who spent 33 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But Rodney Cook Jr. knew exactly what he wanted to do. And that’s why Johnson is busy at work on a 7-foot statue.

072820 Cumming: Sculptor Gregory Johnson (right) works on a one and one-third life-size statue of John Lewis made with 800 pounds of clay that will be cast in bronze at his studio while patron Rodney Mims Cook Jr. (left) checks on the progress on Tuesday, July 28, 2020 in Cumming.    Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
072820 Cumming: Sculptor Gregory Johnson (right) works on a one and one-third life-size statue of John Lewis made with 800 pounds of clay that will be cast in bronze at his studio while patron Rodney Mims Cook Jr. (left) checks on the progress on Tuesday, July 28, 2020 in Cumming. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

ExploreJohn Lewis: Man of the people

Cook, the founder of the National Monuments Foundation, has a vision, and Lewis, as well as a legion of other civil rights heroes, is part of it.

Cook, along with the city of Atlanta and the Trust for Public Land, is developing a 16-acre, $80 million park in Atlanta’s Vine City, just west of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Named after his father, Rodney Cook Sr., the park will include a library to house C.T. Vivian’s 12,000 volumes on civil rights and African American history.

It will be ringed with 18 bronze statues, plaques and monuments dedicated to peacemakers with ties to Georgia, including Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young and Julian Bond.

The statue of Lewis is scheduled to be the first unveiled, as early as September.

“John meant so much to so many people,” Cook said.

072820 Cumming: Sculptor Gregory Johnson explains how he chose the strong gesture he is using on a one and one-third life size statue of John Lewis made with 800 pounds of clay that will be cast in bronze at his studio on Tuesday, July 28, 2020 in Cumming.    Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
072820 Cumming: Sculptor Gregory Johnson explains how he chose the strong gesture he is using on a one and one-third life size statue of John Lewis made with 800 pounds of clay that will be cast in bronze at his studio on Tuesday, July 28, 2020 in Cumming. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

ExploreJohn Lewis: rooted deep in Alabama soil

Momentum building

On Thursday, shortly after Lewis’ funeral, most of Georgia’s congressional delegation signed letters to Gov. Brian Kemp and legislative leaders pushing for Lewis’ likeness to replace a statue in the U.S. Capitol of Alexander Stephens, a white supremacist who was the vice president of the Confederacy.

Next Monday, Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond will introduce legislation that would allow the city to accept as a gift the statue that Johnson is creating.

“This was Lewis’ adopted town,” said Bond, who was Lewis’ godson. “Through his work, Atlanta is highlighted and gets a lot of credit of being the ‘City Too Busy to Hate,’ and the ‘Cradle of the Civil Rights Movement.’ Atlanta owes that in part to John Lewis. We are just returning the favor to him.”

Already in Atlanta, Lewis has been honored with a mural on Auburn Avenue; the John Lewis Plaza in Freedom Park; the John Lewis Invictus Academy, an Atlanta middle school; and the John Lewis Freedom Parkway.

8/22/18 - Atlanta -  U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms celebrate together after Freedom Parkway was renamed "John Lewis Freedom Parkway" during a dedication ceremony and sign unveiling and the Freedom Riders play space was dedicated.  BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM
8/22/18 - Atlanta - U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms celebrate together after Freedom Parkway was renamed "John Lewis Freedom Parkway" during a dedication ceremony and sign unveiling and the Freedom Riders play space was dedicated. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

ExploreYears in Atlanta City Hall tested Lewis’ mettle

In DeKalb County, residents and activists are urging officials to place a statue of Lewis in Decatur Square, where a monument to the Confederacy stood for more than 100 years before it was taken down in June.

Mawuli Davis, the co-chair of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights in Decatur, has proposed that the statue be of a young Lewis in his trench coat and backpack — which he wore as he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965, when he was beaten by Alabama state troopers while marching for voting rights.

“We think that it would again remind young people of their capacity to bring about change,” said Davis, who is a civil rights attorney. Lewis got his start in activism as a student, later chairing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said that the county was still in the very early stages of developing new plans for the area where the Confederate obelisk stood. But he said he certainly wouldn’t be opposed to honoring Lewis.

“I think it would be appropriate to honor him in DeKalb County,” Thurmond said. “It’s just a matter of working through the details of that.”

Finding Lewis’ ‘soul and character'

In Johnson’s sun-bathed studio, dozens of photographs of Lewis are scattered around. Johnson never met Lewis, but read his autobiography, “Walking with the Wind,” to get an essence of Lewis’ “soul and character.”

“There was a joy to his story,” Johnson said. “He had a big heart and was determined that he was going to change the world.”

The sculpture is a mixture of straight lines to show Lewis’ strengths and curved lines to show his warmth. When it’s completed, it will be placed on a seven-foot pedestal.

Johnson has spent more than 250 hours on it and estimates that he will need another 200 hours to finish it and add details like veins and fingernails.

Cook hired Johnson after seeing a sculpture he had done of George Washington.

“I thought he had the eyes to bring out the soul of these Georgia peacemakers who changed the world,” Cook said. “And this is a powerful piece.”

Arol Wolford, who is paying for the statue, could not be reached for comment.

Construction in the playground area is underway at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Atlanta’s Vine City community and will open this summer. The distinguishing set of statues that will set the park apart have not yet been delivered. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Construction in the playground area is underway at Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Atlanta’s Vine City community and will open this summer. The distinguishing set of statues that will set the park apart have not yet been delivered. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

ExploreJohn Lewis’ Homegoing: His funeral in Atlanta

As Johnson continued to fine-tune the clay, Cook laid across on his back and gazed up at the statue.

Lewis was never able to see the statue but saw photos of the work.

“We were racing to get it together for him and were hoping that he would be around for the dedication,” Cook said. “But what has helped me get through these last few days is that he knew about it and was happy with it.”

— Staff reporter Tyler Estep contributed to this report.