On Feb. 21, Brooklyn leaders and artist Kenny Altidor celebrated the historic life of John Lewis on what would have been his 82nd birthday.
Commemorating both the late Congressman’s birthday and Black History Month, Community Advocate Monique Chandler-Waterman and artist Kenny Altidor hosted a neighborhood event Friday in front of a freshly painted mural on East 56th Street and Clarendon Road.
“Today, as we honor John Lewis, and his legacy I call on all of us here to roll up our sleeves to make a difference, Kenny has given us art, some of us run food pantries, host protests, volunteer at community centers or even join the PTA-we all have a role to play to uplift our community,” Chandler-Waterman said. “I have joined many of you at anti-violence rallies, at resource fairs to share knowledge with our communities and at our worst I’ve joined with you at funerals and vigils of people senselessly taken away from us. Let’s elevate our future and create a world that is better than we left it. That is what John Lewis and so many other freedom fighters did for us.”
Altidor strove to include the surrounding community in his work by allowing passersby to make their mark on the piece with a few brush strokes of their own. For Altidor, the legacy of Lewis will forever be entrenched in American history, and as artist Altidor continues to work on the mural of the renowned congressman, he hopes everyone will remember the importance of advocacy and the fight for reform.
“We just wanted to do a special remembrance of all that he did, the voting rights, fighting against segregation, and his work as a freedom rider and Democrat leader pushing for reform. This should be visible to everyone and for everyone to know, with the gun violence, we wanted to make sure we echo that for his birthday.”
Known as one of the “Big Six,” Lewis was an instrumental civil rights leader during the 1960s (his counterparts included: Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young).
Born on Feb. 21, 1940, in Troy, Alabama during the Jim Crow Laws, segregation, and rampant racism, Lewis became a staunch advocate for justice. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent protest, he began to fight for civil rights through sit-ins at segregated locations and then joined the Freedom Riders—individuals who challenged segregated interstate bus terminals in the South.
Not just on Lewis’ birthday and not only in Black History Month, Altidor hopes this mural will aid in keeping all that Lewis fought for at the forefront of society’s minds, including the momentous 1964 March on Washington.
“Civil Rights Movement, freedom of speech NYS, and our democratic leaders have been pushing for reforms and this should be visible to everyone,” Altidor said.
While some progress was made with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Southern states proved to be difficult in this effort, so Lewis decided to lead a march with Hosea Williams from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965—a day that became known as Bloody Sunday when state troopers beat the marchers as they walked across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. His efforts are said to be the reason why the 1965 Voting Rights Act was expedited.
While these acts brought equality a step forward there were still insurmountable inequities, especially regarding the rights of minority voters. In 1986 he was elected to Congress and helped continuously update the Voting Rights Act. For decades he fought against gun violence, voter repression, and for social justice. In 2011, he received the Presidential Freedom medal.
Lewis passed away from pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2020.
His continued work fighting for voting rights inspired the creation of The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021.
Altidor will continue to work on the mural over the next few weeks.
Additional reporting by Adrian Childress