He spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. For decades he walked the halls of Congress. Now that he’s gone, words like “towering moral figure” and “venerable” are guiding the outpouring of grief.
The last place you might have expected to see John Lewis was on the set of a rap video. But that’s exactly what happened in 2008 when Atlanta rapper Jeezy filmed his promo for the single “My President.”
The rapper, whose real name is Jay Jenkins, posted a short clip of Lewis’ cameo on his Instagram page following the death of the 80-year-old Georgia congressman.
“Remember this day, like it was yesterday,” wrote Jeezy. “I couldn’t believe you actually came to [the] middle of the hood to stand with us and support my vision. A true Leader. Been fighting for our rights long as I’ve been living. All heroes don’t wear capes. Rest easy King.”
Around the three-minute mark, Lewis can be seen jumping joyously and smiling, while holding a sign reading “My President is Black.”
The song was written during the 2008 presidential campaign as a tribute to Barack Obama. Lewis once had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers while protesting for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Years later he would say, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising to see Lewis exalted among Atlanta’s hip hop elite. For 33 years he represented the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., a city known for revering its civil rights history and the heroes it produced. Driving around the city, the names on Atlanta’s roads are a who’s who of the civil rights movement, tributes to figures such as Revs. Ralph David Abernathy and Joseph E. Lowery, who each have boulevards named after them on the west side of town.
As a “freedom rider” Lewis pushed for civil rights and rode buses through the Jim Crow south in an effort to desegregate them, the threat of violence never far away. (In 1961 a racially integrated Greyhound bus was firebombed by a white mob in rural Alabama.) For that he was arrested.
It’s not hard to see why he has a mural on Auburn Avenue. It’s also not hard to draw a straight line from Lewis to the political awareness of Atlanta rappers.
When Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms wanted to send a message to people looting in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, she gave a platform to Killer Mike and T.I. Others, like Christopher “Ludacris” Bridges, could be seen at peaceful demonstrations calling for police reform.
As Lewis battled pancreatic cancer this year, his legacy in Congress was already secure. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer went so far as to call him a “Christ-like” figure, and dozens of other lawmakers said his mentorship made a difference in their lives.
In Atlanta, mourners gathered under the mural of Lewis that stretches more than 60 feet high, near where Jeezy shot his music video back in 2008.