A statue of the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis will now keep watch over a site in his former Georgia congressional district which once held a monument to the Confederacy.
Sculptor Basil Watson has been selected to design and create a monument to be placed at the Historic Decatur Courthouse in the district Lewis served for 17 consecutive terms, the DeKalb County Commemorative Task Force announced Thursday.
The task force was formed to honor Lewis’ legacy and “provide a symbol of inclusivity, equality, and justice” where the Confederate monument stood for more than 100 years.
“A monument that represented bigotry, division and hatred will be replaced, by a monument to a man who loved, who cherished this nation and brought all people of all colors together,” DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond said, noting the removal of the confederate monument in 2020 was “one of the proudest moments” of his tenure.
Lewis, who was the son of sharecroppers, survived a brutal beating by police during the landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama and went on to become a towering figure of the civil rights movement. Lewis died in July 2020 at the age of 80.
Speaking at the ceremony announcing his commission on Thursday, Watson said he met the late congressman briefly at an art fair. “Everyone was so excited. We spoke for maybe 30 seconds, but he left an impression,” he said.
“The John Lewis story is a powerful story that needs to be told,” Watson added.
Watson is a Jamaican-born artist who immigrated to Georgia in 2002. His work includes sculptural tributes to eight-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt in his home country and Queen Elizabeth II in the United Kingdom for her Golden Jubilee, according to his website. Many in Atlanta may be familiar with his statue of Martin Luther King Jr. located near Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The courthouse where Lewis’ tribute will be erected is in Decatur Square, a bustling city center just east of Atlanta.
Until June 2020, about a month before Lewis died, the DeKalb County Confederate Monument to “the lost cause” was removed from the courthouse grounds. The movement of the 30-foot obelisk was ordered by a county judge, after the city called it a threat to public safety. Local activists, demonstrators and students from nearby Decatur High School had also pushed for its removal.
“This project has been a labor of love for all of us who knew and loved Congressman Lewis. He served our district and the world with such honor and distinction,” Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett said in a news release ahead of the announcement.
“His statue will stand as a reminder to all who pass that once this great but humble man walked among us, and we are happy we elected him over and over to serve us and the world. He was truly the conscience of the Congress,” Garrett said.
“The artist will commence work immediately. Once the statue is complete, the task force will sponsor a community-wide event to unveil the work,” the release said.
The organization hopes to have the tribute in place by 2024.