Numerous Atlanta street names are on the brink of being changed to rid them of Confederate iconography, a move that has caused heated debate among locals. Meanwhile, one uncontroversial street name — Freedom Parkway — is being changed to recognize a famed civil rights activist.
Atlanta City Council approved Monday the renaming to John Lewis Freedom Parkway. The ordinance, introduced by Councilman Andre Dickens, was adopted unanimously with 14 votes.
Congressman John Lewis said he is “deeply moved” that the mayor, city officials and others opted to name the street after him.
“I moved to Atlanta in 1963 when I was 23 years old,” Lewis said in a phone interview Tuesday. “If someone had told me then one day I’d be elected to (Atlanta City Council) and then elected to the Congress from metro Atlanta, I would have said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ It’s almost unreal.”
For Lewis, the honor is another sign of his self-described “love affair” with Atlanta: He loves the people, and he feels that love back when they walk up to him in grocery stores, malls and the airport to say they’re glad he’s their congressman.
Lewis plans to be in the city when the signs go up some time in 2018.
“The city and people have been very good to me and I’m more than grateful,” Lewis said. “Everyday in metro Atlanta I feel more than lucky, but really blessed.”
City council established in March a task force to find ways to honor Lewis. The committee — created by Dickens and including members such as former mayor Shirley Franklin, Sen. Nan Orrock, Councilman C.T. Martin, Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebeneezer Baptist Church and Lewis staffer Rachelle O'Neil — recommended a street name be changed in his honor.
Renaming Freedom Parkway is a “befitting recognition for Congressman John Lewis as an enduring Atlanta political figure and civil rights legend,” the ordinance says.
During a Nov. 14 public hearing on the ordinance, Dickens said the Carter Center and neighborhood organizations surrounding the busy road, which runs through the Old Fourth Ward, were favorable to the idea.
Yet Atlanta City Hall regular Ron Shakir opposed the change at the hearing last month. Shakir thought time and money could be better spent on other projects, and said communities aren’t calling for a public relations campaign.
“John Lewis is a much celebrated civil rights worker, and the history says that,” Shakir said. “But there’s much more history, or channels that we should champion — like in our school system ... when we see the self-esteem, when we see the test scores, when we see the teachers under attack — that we could really install real impactful change.”
The ordinance also renames East Freedom Parkway to East John Lewis Freedom Parkway.
Lewis, who was elected to Atlanta City Council in 1981, found himself in President Donald Trump’s crosshairs in January when Lewis announced he would boycott the inauguration, because Trump was not a “legitimate” president. Trump sent a series of tweets criticizing the civil rights legend and his congressional district, which includes Freedom Parkway.