A statue of the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis will now guard a spot in his former Georgia congressional district that was once a memorial to the Confederacy.
Sculptor Basil Watson has been chosen to design and create a memorial to be placed in Decatur’s historic Lewis District Courthouse, which has served 17 consecutive terms, the DeKalb County Commemorative Task Force said Thursday.
The task force was formed to honor Lewis’ legacy and “to be a symbol of inclusivity, equality and justice” where the Confederate monument stood for more than 100 years.
“A memorial that represented bigotry, division and hatred will be replaced with a memorial to a man who loved this nation, who valued this nation and brought together all people of all races,” said Michael Thurmond, CEO of DeKalb County, noting the Removal of the Confederate Monument in 2020 was “one of the proudest moments” of his tenure.
The son of sharecroppers, Lewis survived brutal police beatings during the landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, and became a towering figure in the civil rights movement. Lewis died in July 2020 at the age of 80.
At the ceremony to announce his commission on Thursday, Watson said he briefly met the late congressman at an art fair. “Everyone was so excited. We spoke for maybe 30 seconds, but he made an impression,” he said.
“The story of John Lewis is a powerful story that needs to be told,” added Watson.
Watson is a Jamaican-born artist who immigrated to Georgia in 2002. His work includes sculptural tributes to eight-time Olympic champion Usain Bolt in his home country and to Queen Elizabeth II in the UK on her Golden Jubilee, according to his website. Many in Atlanta may be familiar with his statue of Martin Luther King Jr. near Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The courthouse where Lewis’ tribute will be erected is located in Decatur Square, a busy downtown area east of Atlanta.
By June 2020, about a month before Lewis died, the DeKalb County Confederate Monument was removed from the courthouse for “the lost cause.” The movement of the 30-foot obelisk was ordered by a district judge after the city described it as a threat to public safety. Local activists, protesters and students from nearby Decatur High School had also been pushing for their removal.
“This project was an affair of the heart for all of us who knew and loved Congressman Lewis. He has served our district and the world with such honor and distinction,” Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett said in a press release ahead of the announcement.
“His statue will serve as a reminder to all who pass that this great but humble man once walked among us, and we are grateful that we have chosen him again and again to serve ourselves and the world. He really was the conscience of Congress,” Garrett said.
“The artist will start work immediately. Once the statue is complete, the task force will sponsor a community-wide event to showcase the work,” the release reads.
The organization hopes to have the tribute set up by 2024.