Nashville to Honor John Lewis with Signage and Summer Celebration

Shown l-r; Susan Huggins, Minority Caucus Chair Sharon Hurt, Deputy Mayor Brenda Haywood, Senator Brenda Gilmore, Councilmember and Committee Chair Zulfat Suara, Davidson County Property Assessor Vivian Wilhoite, and Greg Bailey, PR Firm Finey+Bailey. Photo by Ashley Benkarski

By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — Civil Rights legend and Georgia representative John Lewis was posthumously honored Jan. 14 with the installation of temporary street signage bearing his name in the historically Black neighborhood of North Nashville, the Rep. John Lewis Committee announced.

Though the signage was installed at the intersection of 5th Avenue and Jefferson Street the renaming is not official yet, said Zulfat Suara, Metro Councilmember At-Large and Committee Chair. For now, the signage installed is only to accommodate emergency vehicles.

The official, permanent signage will be unveiled during a community-wide celebration July 17, one year after his passing. “This is a fitting tribute to Rep. Lewis, and a great day for Nashville in honoring his life and legacy,” Suara said. “We will have a formal dedication in July, hopefully when it is safer to gather as a community to fully pay tribute to Rep. Lewis, his days in Nashville and his contributions to civil rights.”

Fifth Avenue was the site of the student movement’s efforts of desegregation in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Lewis began his journey in Nashville, attending Fisk University and American Baptist Theological Seminary, and went on to lead the historic sit-ins that made the city the first in the South to initiate the desegregation of public spaces. 

In 1961 he represented Nashville in the burgeoning civil rights movement as one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. He later embarked on a career in public service, serving as a city councilmember for Atlanta before going on to represent Georgia’s Fifth District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

To date, more than 2,000 individuals have signed the change.org petition in support of renaming the street in Rep. Lewis’s memory.

Deputy Mayor Brenda Haywood said, “I grew up here in Nashville … [W]hen Martin Luther King delivered the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech I, along with three other young ladies, integrated Stratford High School one month later and John Lewis was the youngest speaker that day. I’ve always looked up to him and I’ve always admired him and he contributed to the wind beneath my wings,” adding that John Lewis was the physical embodiment of being the change you want to see in the world. “I would just like to simply state that only light can put out darkness and we’re standing here in the light of all the wonderful things that John Lewis has accomplished. We’re standing here to illuminate as much light within each and every one of us as possible,” Haywood remarked. 

Metropolitan Nashville Public Works staff installed the signage after Metro Council approved an ordinance last November to rename the street. 

Rep. John Lewis Way will stretch from Jefferson Street to Oak Street at the Nashville City Cemetery.

“I think it’s a glorious day for us to be able to honor such a great man who spent many years here in Nashville … and for us to be able to claim someone like that for the training and growth and the inspiration that he gave here, to go out and share it with the world is just amazing,” Sharon Hurt, Chair of the Minority Caucus, said. The sign is important because it’s a reminder that amidst the chaos of the day “progression is still happening and we’re going to continue to fight and continue to move on and continue to work and bring more equity and inclusion in this city. Nashville is uniquely positioned for that and there’s no better time than now,” Hurt added. “We’ve got to continue to stay focused and keep our eyes on the prize and that’s what we’re doing.”

“Seeing us do this here in Nashville, it just brings a connection for me as a person that was born out of that movement,” said Davidson County Property Assessor Vivian Wilhoite, the first African American to hold the position. “Recognizing people like Representative John Lewis for his hard work, the sweat that he’s given and almost losing his life just for people to have equality and be recognized– all people … John Lewis was a leader of our time and beyond.”

“Having grown up in Nashville and living through the ‘50s and ‘60s and seeing everything that happened in this town, to be able to honor this man for all he did is beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined,” said Susan Huggins.

“It’s way overdue for everything John Lewis did. This is a little bit of recognition but I’m glad we got it,” Suara said, and noted that today’s leaders should reject the temptation of fear and follow Lewis’s example by focusing on real issues communities are facing, such as evictions, unemployment, health care and massive wealth disparities.

In line with Lewis’s legacy of “good trouble,” Wilhoite offered motivation. “We can make a difference,” she said.