When federal immigration official on Saturday night declined to tell U.S. Rep. John Lewis how many people were being held at the Atlanta airport following President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, Lewis turned to a gathering crowd of immigration advocates and attorneys and said: “Why don’t we just sit down and stay a while.” JEREMY REDMON/jredmon@ajc.com

The story behind the photo of John Lewis at the Atlanta airport

Out of context the photo I snapped of U.S. Rep. John Lewis isn’t really that compelling.

I shot it with my iPhone late Saturday night, while sitting across from the 76-year-old Democratic congressman in a drab waiting room at the Atlanta airport. Wearing a dark suit and blue tie, the civil rights icon was patiently sitting in one of those hard metal airport seats, looking off to his right. His hands were clasped in his lap, his fingers laced.

He was there to learn about some travelers who were being detained under the controversial executive order on immigration and refugees President Donald Trump signed Friday. Trump’s decree has sparked a federal lawsuit and sowed widespread confusion and protests in airports across the nation.

Trump’s order, signed Friday, suspends all refugee entries for 120 days.
Video: www.accessatlanta.com

A federal immigration official declined to tell Lewis how many people were being held at the Atlanta airport before retreating back into his office. Soft-spoken and resolute, Lewis turned to a gathering crowd of immigration advocates and attorneys and said almost in a whisper: “Why don’t we just sit down and stay a while.”

To me, it was a clear echo from Lewis’ days marching for racial justice across the Southeast, where he was severely beaten and arrested for his activism. So I knew it was an important moment when he took a seat. Click. I took only one shot. Then I posted it on Twitter.

People have liked the photo 33,800 times so far. “Why don’t we just sit down and stay a while” has become an online slogan and hashtag. My once meager Twitter following has nearly tripled. And a representative from CBS Evening News contacted me today about using the photo in their broadcast tonight.

Lewis is famous, so I expected the photo would get some attention, but nothing like this. That’s where the context comes in.

Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga, right) speaks with attorneys Sarah Owings and Daniel Werner outside the Customs and Border Protection office at Hartsfield International airport Saturday.

Trump put Lewis in the spotlight this month when he dismissed him — on Twitter — as “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!” The Republican real estate mogul also blasted Lewis’ 5th Congressional District in Atlanta, declaring it is “in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested).” That tweet came after Lewis vowed not to attend Trump’s inauguration because he did not view Trump as a legitimate president following Russia’s meddling in the presidential election.

“You cannot be at home with something that you believe is wrong,” Lewis said on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”

Lewis’ fans couldn’t help bringing up Trump’s Twitter blast while retweeting my photo of Lewis’ visit to the airport Saturday. Liam Dixon wrote: “Doing, not just talking.”

Others were critical. Paul, who does not give his last name but uses the @IamPaulRevere handle, tweeted: “Typical, show up to support people from other countries but can’t do the same for the people of the U.S.” And still others fussed at him for supporting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination. “If Lewis had supported Bernie, we wouldn’t be in this mess,” Lucas Lynch tweeted.

Georgia Representative John Lewis greets protesters at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Sunday, January 29, 2017. (Cory Hancock for The AJC)

Eventually, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official invited Lewis and U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson back into his office for a briefing. The congressmen learned 11 travelers had been detained at the Atlanta airport under Trump’s order, parts of which have been put on hold by a federal judge in New York.

After the congressmen emerged from that closed-door meeting and told the waiting crowd of journalists and attorneys what was going on, I asked Lewis if he saw parallels between what was happening with Trump’s executive order and the Civil Rights era.

Again, he spoke so softly that I had to strain to hear him. He told me: “Very much so. During the late 50’s and early 60’s there were forces at the local level, at the state level and the federal level trying to stop the movement. People spied on the movement. And I don’t think we are going to go for that again. This is America. We can do much better.”

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