As she reflected on U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ life, the congressman’s longtime aide, Tuere Butler, recalled an occasion where he used his words to diffuse a heated situation involving a man who had called Lewis’ office.
The man, who was not from Georgia, was angry about a vote Lewis had taken on an issue in the U.S. House of Representatives. He called the congressman’s office, yelled at Lewis’ staff and they took down his phone number.
The staffers were unsure if Lewis would want to talk to the man after he yelled at the staff over the phone.
“We told the congressman ‘This is what happened,’ and the congressman said, ‘Well, let’s call him back,’ “ Butler said. “And, so he got on the phone with some of the staff members in his office and put the gentleman on speaker phone, and the way that he spoke with this gentleman who was very irate and disappointed and frustrated.
“By the end of that conversation, it was like two old friends were talking.”
Sunday would have been Lewis’ 81st birthday, and Gwinnett officials commemorated the occasion with a two-and-half hour event at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center called “The Impact of John Lewis” on Monday morning. The event was held live, with only abut 43 people in attendance because of COVID-19 restrictions, and was broadcast live on the county’s Facebook page.
After Lewis died last year, the county commission took steps last year to declare his birthday as John Lewis Day in Gwinnett.
“We wanted to make sure we showed the impact of everything he’s done because it goes past generations,” Gwinnett County Commissioner Marlene Fosque said after the event ended. “It’s multigenerational.”
There were video tributes to Lewis, musical and spoken word poetry presentations and the presentation of a proclamation honoring Lewis’ life, which county commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson presented to Butler.
His participation in the Freedom Rides, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., and the March on Washington, D.C., were among the many accomplishments in his life that were recalled by participants.
Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health Departments Director Dr. Audrey Arona evoked Lewis’ memory as she talked to attendees about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to encourage people to get people to get vaccinated against the disease.
“I know that Congressman John Lewis would have stepped up to be an advocate for this vaccine, and he would have worked to ensure that everyone has equal access to this vaccine,” Arona said.
Fosque also led two panel discussions on Lewis’ impact at the event. The first featured Butler, where she recounted the story about Lewis and the phone call, as well as Hendrickson and U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux.
The second panel featured former state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, Berean Christian Church Pastor Kevin Lee and Farooq Mughal.
Both panels focused on Lewis’ legacy and the work still left to be done in the area of Civil Rights.
Bourdeaux said that, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was uncertainty about what would be the result of the efforts made by the people fighting for equal rights.
“When you’re filled with passion to change something, there’s always going to be this uncertainty that is going to dog you throughout the process,” she said. “That is why it’s so impressive what he accomplished — his courage and persistence over time — and that is really what you have to bring to many of our problems.
“Every once in while, we have a public problem, and you go out there and it’s solved easily, but so many times you just have to persist over and over again.”
Hendrickson said there is still “good trouble,” as Lewis used to call it, to be done in some of the areas that the congressman was trying to address 60 years ago.
“It’s about continuing to fight for racial and social justice and (confronting) inequities that we continue to experience,” the chairwoman said. “While it’s not in your face, it manifests in so many different ways in our policies, in behaviors, in zoning laws and restrictive access and undue justice.
“You know, we have to speak out about those injustices and I think is what ‘good trouble’ is about. It’s about speaking out against injustices no matter what the cost is, and not being afraid to do so because, at the end of the day, it’s about ensuring freedom.”