During a dedication ceremony in his honor at Freedom Park on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. John Lewis would not allow himself, or anyone, to be distracted by the momentous occasion.
“This is a beautiful day in Atlanta, but we must be mindful that there are forces in America trying to take us back to another time and another place,” Lewis said to applause. “We’ve come too far, we’ve made too much progress and we’re not going back. We are going forward.”
Lewis’ family members, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former mayors Shirley Franklin and Bill Campbell, were among the large crowd that gathered for the unveiling of John Lewis Freedom Parkway. After exiting a borrowed MARTA bus filled with city officials, the famed civil rights activist walked down a paved path, which had been recently painted with the states of the 1961 Freedom Riders route.
The Clark Atlanta University band playing on the sidelines quieted, and Atlanta City Councilman Andre Dickens explained why Freedom Parkway was chosen to bear Lewis’ name.
“For me, the obvious reason of course, is that John Lewis is synonymous with freedom. He’s our hero.” said Dickens, who created a task force in March 2017 to find ways to honor Lewis.
Lewis was among key activists and leaders in the civil rights movement, taking part in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, the 1961 Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington and the Bloody Sunday march in 1965, where he was beaten in the skull by a state trooper in Selma, Alabama.
A tribute wall to Lewis will also be erected at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in advance of the upcoming Super Bowl.
Mayor Bottoms presented Lewis with the Phoenix Award, which she called the highest honor that can bestowed upon anyone from the mayor’s office.
“If there were an honor that we had even higher than this, I would present it today,” she said.
Lewis, 78, thanked everyone responsible for the renaming before launching into a passionate speech about unity, preservation and the importance of voting in the next election.
“We want people to learn from the city of Atlanta, learn that we are one people, we are one family. We all live in the same house: the American house, the world house,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether we are black or white, Latino, Asian American or Native American. We will not give up on each other. We will not become bitter and divided.”
That message resonated with interior designer Katherine Martinez, who’d come out after learning of the event on Facebook. She thinks the renaming sends a message that Atlanta appreciates “the people who fight for us.”
“He is still fighting for equality, not just for black people but for all people,” she said. “What he said, that was really powerful. We all live in the same house: Planet Earth. So why not support people that are actually still fighting our fight?”
The thoroughfare renamed for Lewis, who was elected to Atlanta City Council in 1981 and Congress in 1987, stems from the Downtown Connector, crosses Boulevard and then splits off to Ponce de Leon and Moreland avenues. The ordinance also renames East Freedom Parkway to East John Lewis Freedom Parkway.
The newly named parkway adds to the list of other Atlanta odes to Lewis, including a mural on Auburn Avenue, John Lewis Plaza in Freedom Park and the John Lewis Invictus Academy. Seventh graders from that school attended the dedication ceremony and walked alongside Lewis.
“It was fun because I go to a school named after a civil rights activist,” Arin Hilson said. “It’s fun to be around that person and get to understand more about how our culture came here.”
Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this story.
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