John Sweet, activist and lawyer, dies at 77

John Sweet, with his wife Midge

In 1971, Emory University law student John Sweet bought four dilapidated houses on Elizabeth Street in Inman Park. He wanted only one, but the slumlord-owner insisted that it was the quartet or nothing.

Known for his congenial persuasiveness, Sweet found other in-town pioneers to take three of the houses off his hands. One he kept for himself, a decades long work-in-progress that he would live in the rest of his life.

Much of Sweet’s life, with all its colorful variety, activism, politics and idiosyncrasies, was rooted in Inman Park.

John F. Sweet, 77, died May 24 from complication of Parkinson’s Disease, which he’d been diagnosed with 14 years ago. His wife Midge Sweet said she’s planning a service next spring around the time of his March 20 birthday.

The once stately Atlanta suburb of Inman Park had been in social and physical erosion for years when Sweet moved in. Slumlords sliced mansions into apartments rented by the week. Violence and drugs were common.

“I’m not quite sure how we did it, or why,” said Gene Griffith, then a fellow Emory law student who bought a house on Elizabeth before Sweet. “You’re talking about a certain age group and mindset, where you weren’t scared of either taking a risk financially or of a gun fight up at Little Five Points.”

In 1972, it was tough to get home loans in debilitated in-town environs, so Sweet and Stan Wyse pooled $54 between them and started the BOND Community Federal Credit Union, among the country’s first neighborhood credit unions.

Around the same time Sweet and Griffith formed a company that bought, rehabbed and sold about 17 rundown houses in and around Inman Park.

“The down payments were like $500 apiece. We would physically do the work on the houses ourselves. … We wanted to get them out of the slumlords hands and find someone stupid like us to invest in the neighborhood,” he said.

They also practiced law together for five years and remained lifelong friends.

The two had trouble getting city government to pay attention to the still tough neighborhood.

“It wasn’t John’s personal desire to be a politician. But we needed representation, political muscle” Griffin said.

So in 1977, Sweet ran and won the District 2 seat on Atlanta city’s council. Though he held off held office only one term, he’d spend much of his remaining life scouting, identifying, and coaching a litany of progressive candidates, particularly women and minorities. A partial list of his protégés include John Lewis, whom he helped get elected to city council. Later would come the likes of state Sen. Mary Margaret Oliver, and state representatives Stephanie Stuckey and Stacey Abrams.

“He took me door to door on a cold January morning in Inman Park, introducing me to the neighborhood,” said Nan Orrock, a Georgia House member from 1987-2006 and currently a democratic state senator. “He was not doing it for his self-aggrandizement, he was doing it to advance the cause.

“He must’ve been one of the first to use numbers-based analysis. He taught you how to target your outreach towards those voters who consistently showed up to vote. He taught you how to believe in yourself, how to shape your message, how to tell your life story and how to raise money.”

John Sweet served a term on Atlanta’s City Council and coached many rising politicians.

Sweet was born in a Detroit housing project and grew up in Cincinnati. His parentage is complicated. Fred Sweet, the man John grew up with and believed his father, was a union activist and leftist labor journalist who made a prominent appearance in Studs Terkel’s 1971 book, “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.”

Sweet discovered late in life, and after his parents died, that his biological father was a progressive financier, academic and prominent labor and civil rights activist in the 1940s. His parents had never breathed a word of it to him.

If it left Sweet with a dossier of unanswered questions, he at least knew he came by his activism honestly.

“I can tell you this, John absolutely raised himself,” said Nancy Felson, friends with Sweet since the ninth grade. “He was never given money, he always had to fend for himself, and I think he often went hungry.

“His passion, and mine, was social justice,” she said. “As a teenager he went to a communist summer camp. It taught him respect for tools, which he was very skilled with, and it taught him community living and community work.”

Much of Sweet’s career was dedicated to volunteer and pro-bono work. He chaired Atlanta’s Housing Authority and the Workers’ Compensation Section of the Georgia Bar Association. He was the pro-bono attorney for the Council on Battered Women for 10 years.

He was active in representing injured workers’ denied benefits by their employer. In a recent interview, Kathy Wilde figures that in any one year he had over 250 workers comp cases open, often tackling those situations with the longest odds.

“He would take cases no other lawyer would take and a lot of times he would get nothing, either for himself or his client,” said Carolyn Hall, a former trial judge and former chairman of the Workers’ Compensation Board. “But John would say it was worth it just to get (an injured worker) a venue where they could tell their personal story before a judge.”

While volunteering for the American Civil Liberties Union, Sweet met Michael Hardwick, a gay bartender who’d been charged with violating the state’s 150-year-old sodomy law. Sweet and the ACLU used the case to challenge the law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sweet recalled for the Washington Post in 1986, “We had a talk about the epic quality of the struggle. I told [Hardwick] that if he chose to, he could be part of it.”

Sweet remained with Hardwick through the initial criminal trial in Fulton County, after which his associate Kathy Wilde took the case to Georgia's federal district course where it was dismissed. In 1984 she secured a victory in Georgia's federal court of appeals, but lost again in the U.S. Supreme Court in a dramatic 5-4 decision.

In 2003, the Supreme Court heard a different challenge out of Texas and overruled the 1986 verdict, invalidating anti-sodomy laws in Georgia and 12 other states.

A guitarist and singer most of his life, Sweet spent decades compiling music ranging from civil rights songs, to Appalachian music, union tunes, protest songs or, as his wife Midge said, “the more radical the song the better.”

Pete Seeger, the songwriter and activist, would overnight with the Sweets when playing in Cincinnati in the 1950s.

Beginning in the late 1990s a group of musicians gathered in Sweet’s basement on Wednesday nights. Sweet offered them a single implacable edict: You don’t have to be any good, but you have to play and sing.

“I think those Wednesday nights ties his life together,” Gene Griffith said. “The sense of community and cohesiveness, the idea that we are in charge of our destiny and we are not ruled by banks, slumlords or city councilmen who don’t give a hoot. Most important, everybody participates. John Sweet was never about sitting back and letting things run their course.”

Sweet is survived by his Midge Sweet, his wife of 42 years, and their children Cassandra Eterovic (Dalibor) and Eli Sweet (Keke Ren), sister-in-law Christiane French, twin sister, Ann Brubaker (Larry), brother David Sweet (Elaine Kihara) and four grandchildren.

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