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Thought Leadership Views From Peachtree

Remembering our *HERO, Congressman John Lewis

By Alex Ryan Bauer, Membership & Engagement Manager, Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District

This Saturday marks the second anniversary of Congressman John Lewis being laid to rest. Here in Downtown Atlanta, his absence is still felt, and the impact he had has only become more remarkable. For proof, look no further than the seven-story *HERO mural in Sweet Auburn. The mural remains a powerful symbol of how far we’ve come towards creating a more equitable Atlanta—while reminding us of all the work left to do.

Rising seven stories above Auburn Avenue and Jesse Hill Jr. Drive, the *HERO mural is one of Atlanta’s most iconic fixtures and a fitting testament to the congressman’s legacy. In 2012, a group of individuals came together on a project that now carries a lot of emotional resonance for the whole city. The story goes like this. Local artist Sean Schwab of The Loss Prevention art collective expressed his interest in creating the mural to Lewis’ campaign manager Matt Weyandt. After getting the congressman’s approval, they reached out to Gene Kansas of Gene Kansas Commercial Real Estate. Kansas was quick to suggest a property as the site for the mural. Located in historic Sweet Auburn, looking east towards the rising sun and Dr. King’s birthplace, the location was an ideal spot, steeped in history and significance.

Within a week others stepped up to help bring the mural to life, including Sonya McLaughlin Halperin and Daniel Halpern, Atlanta Restaurant Partners and metro businessman Mack Wilburn. Schwab started painting in the heat of late July, and by the end of August, the mural was completed. 

When Lewis attended its unveiling in 2012, he was humble as always: “Growing up in a little town in southeast Alabama, I never would have dreamed there would be a mural of me on the side of a building in Atlanta that is so big it could be seen from the highway.” He joined Schwab in completing the portrait, with Lewis painting the dot over the ‘I’ in his last name.

Since its creation, the mural has been featured on television and in films. Thousands of residents and visitors flock to it each year to take photographs and reflect upon the congressman’s life. Future plans for the site include modifying the existing parking lot into greenspace, an initiative that’s being led by Butler Street Community Development Corporation. The organization is housed in the former Butler Street YMCA building, which was the first black YMCA in the country and a notable meeting place for leaders of the civil rights movement. 

I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Congressman Lewis, but the more I talk to those who did, the more I am inspired by his empathy and kindness. I am moved by his love for the city I call home. For me, like many folks who pass it daily, the mural is a poignant sign of hope in a nation plagued by stories of hatred, violence, and political division. It says that despite all our differences—in race, class, language, religion—we must always remember that we are far more similar than we are unalike. In our collective pursuit of happiness, standing up for what we believe in is at the heart of who we are as Americans. And as Atlantans, we have the unique responsibility to continue the legacy that John left us on the same streets where the congressman lived, worked, and marched. 

“Democracy is not a state,” John wrote just before he passed. “It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

So, what will your part be in building The Beloved Community? It’s a question that takes a lifetime to answer, but it all begins by following the example that John left us and living a life of kindness and truth. 


Make plans to join our community at the HERO mural for the 2nd Annual “Reimagine the Legacy: Honoring John Lewis” tribute this Saturday, July 30th. Beginning at 10 a.m., special speakers include Mayor Andre Dickens, author Andrew Aydin, and Jared McKinley, 5th Congressional District Director of Outreach and External Affairs, plus musical performances by LaTocha Scott and the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra.

The ceremony will conclude with the ringing of bells for 80 seconds, representing Congressman Lewis’ 80 years of life. After, attendees are encouraged to spend the day exploring the Downtown museums and businesses that John loved so dearly. For more details on everything happening this Saturday, visit ReimagineTheLegacy.com.


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