Memorial to Civil Rights Icon John Lewis Will Replace Confederate Monument in Georgia

A tribute to the congressman and activist will stand in a DeKalb County square once occupied by a Confederate obelisk

John Lewis
Local commissioners approved a resolution calling for the memorial's creation on January 26. Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.0

A memorial to the late congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis will soon stand in a Georgia square formerly occupied by a Confederate monument.

As Asia Ashley reports for local news outlet the Champion, the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution advocating for the monument’s creation on January 26. The tribute will be installed on the grounds of the DeKalb County Courthouse, where a 30-foot obelisk honoring DeKalb’s Confederate soldiers stood until June 2020, when a judge ordered its removal following protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

“The area that once held the obelisk monument is unique as it sits wholly, both in the Congressional District Mr. Lewis represented for over 33 years and in DeKalb County, Georgia, and in the City of Decatur, the county seat,” the resolution states, as quoted by the Champion.

According to Tyler Estep of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the resolution calls the site “the most fitting” place for a memorial to Lewis, who represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District—which includes Atlanta and most of DeKalb—in the United States House of Representatives.

Confederate obelisk in front of DeKalb County Courthouse
A local judge ordered the removal of the 30-foot-tall Confederate obelisk last June. Daniel Mayer via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

The board’s decision is a direct response to recommendations from the John Lewis Commemorative Task Force, a group created last August to discuss the best way to honor the legislator following his death at age 80 on July 17, 2020.

“John was a giant of a man, with a humble heart,” DeKalb County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson told the Journal’s Estep at the time. “He met no strangers and he truly was a man who loved the people and who loved his country, which he represented very well. He deserves this honor.”

Born in Troy, Alabama, in 1940, Lewis was the son of sharecroppers. As a teenager, he read about the burgeoning civil rights movement and drew inspiration from activists like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., who invited Lewis to visit him in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1958.

Just five years later, Lewis—then serving as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—became the youngest member of the “Big Six,” helping to plan the 1963 March on Washington alongside King and other civil rights leaders. In 1965, he led a peaceful protest at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Law enforcement officers attacked the activist and his group of 600 in an event that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Lewis was elected to the House of Representatives, where he continued to fight for principles of equality, in 1986. He was instrumental in the passage of a 2003 bill establishing the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which he described as “a dream come true.”

Police approach John Lewis and protesters
Alabama police officers approach John Lewis (in tan coat) and other activists on "Bloody Sunday" in 1965. NMAAHC, © 1965 Spider Martin

Speaking with Smithsonian magazine’s Meilan Solly last July, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, who served as the museum’s founding director, said that Lewis fought “for the rights of women, for the homeless, for the less fortunate, so in some ways, [he] is the best example of what the civil rights movement was all about, which was ensuring freedom not just for African Americans, but for all Americans.”

DeKalb legislators are still determining the details of the planned monument, but as the Journal reports, the Decatur-based Beacon Hill Alliance for Human Rights has suggested a statue of Lewis donning a trench coat and backpack—the outfit he wore on Bloody Sunday.

“It is our hope that because our youth played such an essential role in the removal of the [Confederate] monument, that a statue of the young John Lewis during his [younger] years will be erected in the Decatur square,” representatives said at a July meeting, as quoted by the Champion.

Other local tributes to the civil rights icon include the John Lewis Plaza in Atlanta’s Freedom Park, the John Lewis Invictus Academy and the John Lewis Freedom Parkway.

“I think it would be appropriate to honor him in DeKalb County,” DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond told the Journals Ernie Suggs and J.D. Capelouto last August. “It’s just a matter of working through the details of that.”

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