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America recently lost one of its greatest heroes and most valiant warriors for justice, Rep. John Lewis. He was often called the “Conscience of the Congress,” a leader who was guided by his heart and worked tirelessly to fight against systemic oppression and racism in our country. . Born to parents who were sharecroppers in Alabama in 1940, Rep. Lewis saw racial injustice firsthand in the segregated schools he attended, the segregated neighborhoods he lived in, and the lack of economic and political opportunities afforded to his parents early in his life. Then, as a student at Fisk University, he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville. He went on to become the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963, Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and a Freedom Rider—risking his life time and time again. When Rep. Lewis led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, he and his fellow civil rights activists put their lives on the line and were brutally beaten by police. Those images would become powerful symbols of the struggle for equal rights and ultimately help rally support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
I had the privilege of meeting Rep. Lewis with Rep. Lucy McBath before she was elected to Congress. Rep. Lewis practiced what he preached when he urged people to get in “good trouble, necessary trouble;” he himself was arrested more than 40 times during his decades-long fight for justice. After being diagnosed with cancer, Rep. Lewis watched people in the United States from all walks of life continue his legacy by protesting the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. Rep. Lewis was a huge supporter of the gun violence prevention movement. His legacy lives on in the next generation of grassroots activists and political leaders who show up every day to demand our country live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all for the first time. Among those leaders is Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has battled the coronavirus pandemic and the gun violence epidemic in her city and has spoken about how her friend, neighbor, and mentor, Rep. Lewis, passed the baton to all of us in the fight for justice.
You can watch my full Demanding Women conversation with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms here:
Below are just six of the many lessons that came out of my conversation with Mayor Bottoms.
When a Black man jogging down the street is shot and killed by vigilantes acting on their own hatred, we know this is not a unique event and that profound change must occur. Mayor Bottoms called the February 23 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, 25, “a lynching of an African American man.” She was one of dozens of mayors who signed on to an Everytown for Gun Safety letter demanding the repeal of Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law. Mayor Bottoms reminded us that “there is so much work being done, but it all seems to be in response. Even with the hate crime law that was passed, that hate crime law had been debated for many years in our general assembly. It took the death—and the public’s ability to see the death—of Ahmaud Arbery for that law to be passed. We need to stop being reactive, and make sure we are proactive with our policies.” Mayor Bottoms told me during our conversation, that “for the first time, we are seeing our own subconscious biases in a very cohesive way, and we are having a collective conversation about it. I think that will go a very long way, but it breaks my heart that it is on the heels of so many tragedies in our country.”
Police violence is gun violence, and law enforcement officers must be held accountable when they break the law. On June 12, Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by an Atlanta Police Department officer outside of a Wendy’s restaurant. Mayor Bottoms condemned it as an unjustified use of deadly force and responded by issuing a series of executive orders around the use of force by police. In our conversation, Mayor Bottoms said, “To see that interaction end the way that it did highlighted for me that there are some bigger issues at play. We have officers on our streets who don’t think there is another way—that there is an alternative.”
Mayor Bottoms talked about a new office created by her administration, One Atlanta, to deal with these community-based systemic issues. “We made sure people had job training, making sure that we are providing resources in communities, and meeting people at their point of need,” she said. “And we were having a lot of success, especially through our at-promise youth centers.”
Mayor Bottoms knows how crucial it is to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Along with her husband and one of her children, she tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month. Atlanta sits in two of the counties with the highest COVID-19 infection rates in her state. And yet in her battle to keep Atlanta residents safe, she’s also had to fight against Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, who filed a lawsuit against the mayor and the city council over Atlanta’s mask requirement.
During our conversation, Mayor Bottoms and I were joined by Rylee Holland, a Students Demand Action volunteer at Georgia Tech. She spoke about how her university will have hybrid classes this fall, which makes students at risk for COVID-19 and gun violence, since state law allows for guns on college campuses. Mayor Bottoms reminded us that we “can’t live in fear… but what we can do is live each day in action. The reason that we allow guns on campuses is because we have elected officials who voted to do so. So when we take this anger and anxiety and turn it into action, that’s when we have change. That is what we saw with the Civil Rights Movement and I know it can be the same in 2020—but it has to be collective action.” Her advice to us was “to work each and every day to make sure you are working toward change in America—not from a point of fear, but from a place of empowerment.”
As the chairperson of the DNC platform drafting committee, Mayor Bottoms has a unique role to play in ensuring gun safety is a priority. She urged Vice President Joe Biden to continue to be vocal about gun safety and closing deadly loopholes such as the “Charleston loophole.” She also warned that voter suppression will continue to be a factor—whether it be voter purging, absentee ballots never coming, or long voting lines in Black communities.“Voter suppression is real. We have seen it during the primary season. We will see it in November. That is why it is important to show up and vote, and we don’t leave any vote uncast. There is going to be an effort to suppress our vote—especially in Black and brown communities. We need to vote early and do it in such high numbers,” Mayor Bottoms said.
As a mother of four, Mayor Bottoms knows how motherhood uniquely prepares us for activism. Mayor Bottoms told me that “this is not a time to be fearful. It’s not a time to dial back. It’s not a time for us to leave our fate up to others. This is a time for us to continue to take action and to push forward. It is the time to do the right thing, because it is the right thing to do.” She reminded us that it is important to “think about the life of John Lewis, what he did on the Edmund Pettus bridge, and what so many others sacrificed and worked for was not necessarily something they were able to see the benefits of in that year or even in their lifetime. But 50 or 60 years later, we are a very different country because of that. That is the work that I see you all are doing and the work that later generations will be grateful for and be better for.”
I’ve been hosting conversations with women leaders from around the country. Catch up on the conversations!Watch here
Shannon Watts is a mother of five who, prior to founding Moms Demand Action, was a stay-at-home mom and former communications executive. The day after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Shannon started a Facebook group with the message that all Americans can and should do more to reduce gun violence. The online conversation turned into a grassroots movement of Americans fighting for public safety measures that protect people from gun violence. Moms Demand Action has established a chapter in every state of the country and is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country, with nearly 6 million supporters. In addition to her work with Moms Demand Action, Watts is an active board member of Emerge America, one of the nation’s leading organizations for recruiting and training women to run for office.
Did you know?
The US gun homicide rate is 25 times higher than that of other high-income countries.
Grinshteyn, E. and Hemenway, D. “Violent Death Rates in the US Compared to Those of the Other High-income Countries, 2015.” Preventive Medicine. (2019). https://bit.ly/3kyfsSs
Last updated: 1.7.2021