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Memorial to John Lewis planned in Decatur Square

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Memorial to John Lewis planned in Decatur Square

The John Lewis mural painted by Sean Schwab in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta, ,July 29, 2020. Photo by Dean Hesse.

By Logan C. Ritchie, contributor

Decatur, GA — Just before midnight on June 18, 2020, a Confederate monument in Decatur Square was removed, abolishing a 112-year-old racist display in the center of a progressive metro Atlanta suburb.

This week, DeKalb County moved one step closer to replacing that symbol of hate with a symbol of hope. On Jan. 26, DeKalb County commissioners unanimously approved a resolution to memorialize the late Congressman John Lewis who served the 5th district for 33 years. Lewis died in July after a battle with cancer at age 80.

A Civil Right activist, Lewis is known for marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in March 1965 with storied politician Hosea L. Williams. It’s the famous image from Bloody Sunday of young John Lewis donning a trench coat and backpack that is being considered for a statue in Decatur.

Lewis’ memorial will replace the monument that residents considered a call-back to the South’s Jim Crow era.

A task force formed by Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson and Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett in August asked the committee take six months to make a recommendation on how best to honor the life and work of Lewis.

“John was a giant of a man, with a humble heart. 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,” Davis Johnson said.

DeKalb County Board of Commissioners plan to celebrate Lewis as an American hero, his pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and his lifelong fight for human rights, dignity and equality with a memorial, according to the resolution.

The Confederate obelisk was erected in 1908 by A. Evans Camp of the Confederate Veterans, with funds raised by the Agnes Lee Chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy. Activists had been calling for its removal for nearly three years before its removal.

Fonta High, co-chair of Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, said the fight to change racist monuments in Decatur is not over.

“The passing of the resolution is an important move for the county to make; however, it is reflective of a double consciousness or a cognitive dissonance that exists within our nation’s leaders as they speak about unity and our county leaders that a statue of Lewis, a staunch supporter of American Indians, could be considered when just a few feet away from where the Lost Cause monument once stood is the cannon from the “Indian Wars” of 1836,” High said, referring to the weapon used to commit genocide against Muscogee people.

High continued, “Susan Shown Harjo, a former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, once said, ‘[Lewis] supported Native rights and never questioned our priorities-from children, health, education and jobs programs and social, racial, gender justice issues to protecting sacred places, religious freedom and ancestors, to museum and institution building, to dropping Custer and designating the Little Bighorn National Battlefield Monument and to getting rid of the vile name of the Washington Redskins.’”

“So how can both symbols exist in the same space?” High asked.

Last month, Decatur High School students called for the removal of the cannon, which Decatur City Commission supports.