John Lewis statue to be placed where Confederate monument once stood

Jamaican sculptor Basil Watson chosen to create historic memorial

It was a brief encounter, but as with nearly everyone who ever met the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the meeting was impactful.

It was 2005 at an art fair and sculptor Basil Watson, just three years after moving to Atlanta from Jamaica, got word that the civil rights legend and longtime Congressman was going to stop by.

Credit: Courtesy Basil Watson

Credit: Courtesy Basil Watson

“There was a big excitement that he was coming,” Watson said. “He came by and shook my hand and we spoke briefly. I was impressed by his calm and peaceful nature. I sensed someone of great passion and empathy. My feelings for him grew more and more over the years.”

Now, 17 years later, Watson will try to harness those feelings as he immortalizes Lewis forever.

On Thursday night, the John Lewis Commemorative Task Force was expected to announce that Watson has been selected to create a statue of Lewis in the heart of Decatur Square. The city of Decatur was part of Lewis’ Congressional district.

ExploreVandals defaced historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta; FBI offers reward

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

“This project has been a labor of love for all of us who knew and loved Congressman Lewis,” said Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett. “He served our district and the world with such honor and distinction. His statue will stand as a reminder to all who pass that once this great but humble man walked among us, and we are happy we elected him over and over to serve us and the world.”

Watson is expected to begin working on the statue immediately, for placement in front of the Historic DeKalb Courthouse. It will take the place of the Confederate Obelisk Monument, taken down in June 2020, that had been erected in 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“It is poetic justice,” said DeKalb County 5th District Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who is also a member of the Lewis Task Force. “John spread love around the world. John was very inclusive of all people. So, it is appropriate to place something that represents love over something that symbolized hate.”

Johnson said the task force has raised about $600,000 for the project that Watson expects to unveil in 2024.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

For Lewis, who died in 2020, the statue will add to an impressive portfolio reflecting how he has been honored locally. 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. Last July, Lewis’ first statue was unveiled at the new 16-acre Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

None of that bothers Watson.

In January 2021, his statue of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “Hope Moving Forward,” was installed at the intersection of Northside Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive as part of Atlanta’s MLK Innovation Corridor Project, a $43 million urban-renewal initiative designed to enhance walkability and curb appeal in neighborhoods bordering Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was the first of seven art installations commissioned by the city to honor the civil rights leader.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

“Pressure makes diamonds. I do feel pressure, but I welcome it,” Watson said of the challenge of capturing Lewis. “I feel a strong sense of responsibility to stand up to the task.”

Watson moved to Atlanta in 2002, although his roots in the city date back to the late 1960s. His father, Barrington Watson, taught art at Spelman College in the 1960s and 1970s.

ExploreTributes and more: John Lewis left footprints across metro Atlanta

Watson never lived in Atlanta previously, but his work capturing the Black experience has been the foundation of his art.

His larger-than-life-size sculptures of Olympic gold medalists Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Asafa Powell surround Jamaica’s National Stadium and in 2012, his “Rings of Life commission was unveiled in his homeland by Prince Harry at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital as part of Jamaica’s 50th Independence celebration.

Credit: Courtesy of Basil Watson

Credit: Courtesy of Basil Watson

In June, his latest work, the “National Windrush Monument,” was unveiled at London’s Waterloo Station to honor British West Indian immigrants who came to the United Kingdom on board HMT Empire Windrush in 1948.

Watson’s Lewis statue will be his third in Atlanta, following the King statue and his first “Cradle – Future in Our Hands,” at the Neighborhood Union Health Center in Vine City.

Credit: Courtesy Basil Watson

Credit: Courtesy Basil Watson

“I am an artist first and foremost and I look at the human experience. I draw from everywhere to understand human nature,” Watson said. “But my direct experience is the Black experience. I see the world as a Black man who grew up in a Black world – Jamaica. I see myself as a Black artist seeing through Black eyes and that is becoming more evident in my work.”

Watson has a study of the statue in his Lawrenceville studio that will inform the creation of the permanent installation.

Credit: Courtesy Basil Watson

Credit: Courtesy Basil Watson

In the mockup piece, the Congressman is standing with his hands clutched above his heart. His head is back, and his eyes are closed. It is an image of peace and calm that the world knew about Lewis ever since he burst onto the scene in 1961 as a Freedom Rider, through his 33 years in Congress.

When it is finished, the 12-foot statue will be placed on a four-foot pedestal.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“I am very delighted to be selected,” Watson said. “It is a distinct honor to be given the responsibility of telling the story of one of our great sons who was so revered in Atlanta, Georgia, and the United States.”