Congressman John Lewis’ Artistic Side
February 19, 2021
By MELANIE EVERSLEY
This Sunday, Feb. 21st, is the late Congressman John Lewis’ first birthday since his death last year from cancer. He would have been 81. Those who mark the occasion are likely to reflect on Lewis’ long record on civil rights: After growing up in poverty in rural Alabama, Lewis became a disciple of Martin Luther King, Jr.; chair of the prominent Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); an organizer of some of the 1960s’ most high-profile marches for voting rights and equality; a Democratic leader in Congress representing the district around Atlanta, Georgia, for 23 years—a tenure so highly principled that Lewis was often called “the conscience of Congress.”
But Lewis’ inner circle of real friends and a few others knew an entirely different side of the congressman, one that loved and collected paintings and other works by Black artists. Lewis didn’t just collect these works—he also became friends with the artists, frequently traveling from Harlem to the rural South to visit with them.
For Lewis, art was a respite from the busy days on Capitol Hill, shuttling between homes and offices in Atlanta and Washington, and frequently speaking to groups. In Lewis’ final days in Atlanta, Lewis’ longtime friend Keith Washington says that drinking smoothies and talking about Black art were some of the few things that gave the congressman comfort.
For years, every morning at 6:30 a.m., Lewis and Washington, a deputy assistant treasurer for the Department of Transportation, spoke together by phone. “He just loved art,” Washington says wistfully of Lewis, a soft-spoken man who stood at only 5 feet, 5 inches. “He taught me so much.”
Art, in fact, was woven throughout Lewis’ adult life. His friends included Harlem Renaissance painters Jacob Lawrence, known for his depictions of the Great Migration; Romare Bearden, a collagist and cubist from North Carolina who lived in New York City; Charles White, a painter from Chicago known for a mural on Virginia’s Hampton University campus; Herman “Kofi” Bailey, a charcoal artist from Chicago influenced by Lawrence; Benny Andrews, a painter and collagist from Georgia; and Thornton Dial Sr. , an Alabama artist who worked with found materials. All, like Lewis, are now gone.
And each of these artists loved Lewis back. Lawrence painted the famous “Bloody Sunday” scene from the 1965 crossing Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, when Lewis and others were beaten while peacefully marching for voting rights. Dial later added his own artistic touch to that shameful moment in American history. Benny Andrews painted crucial scenes from Lewis’ life for the James Haskins children’s book, “John Lewis in the Lead.” And Bailey once painted a portrait of the congressman and his late wife, Lillian.
After I got a chance to speak with Washington, along with some of these artists’ surviving relatives, it became clear that each friendship brought a slightly different blend of art and politics to Lewis’ life. He seemed to bond in particular with artists who shared elements of his background: growing up in poverty in the rural South, parents who were sharecroppers, an innate need to fight the system of discrimination, and a commitment to the civil rights movement.
Lewis’ love for art crystallized while he was studying religion and philosophy at Fisk University, an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) in Nashville, Tennessee. During this period, Lewis befriended a parade of fellow student activists who would go on to leave a deep mark on the nation’s civil rights struggles. The names include the late Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, D.C.; and Diane Nash, who co-founded SNCC. Together, they led some of the early sit-ins against segregated lunch counters (in Nashville), and launched the Freedom Riders, a valiant campaign to integrate trains and buses that almost got many activists killed. Their work was later documented in David Halberstam’s 1999 book, “The Children.”
In the midst of all this activism, Lewis took a class on art appreciation with painter and educator Aaron Douglass. It changed his life. “Seeing our work, in the struggle, depicted on canvas or in other forms of fine art was very uplifting,” Lewis told Danielle Issacs, fine arts specialist at Weschler’s Auctioneers & Appraisers. “My appreciation for African American art grew out of these experiences,” he said. During these times, Lewis told me, he would pack food in a brown paper bag before a demonstration in case he was arrested.
As for Benny Andrews, a painter who spent most of his working life in Brooklyn, N.Y., the painter’s widow, Nene Humphrey, believes Lewis and her late husband met when both were young men and Andrews’ mother, Viola Andrews, was active at a Baptist church in the Atlanta area. “They were country boys, and they were reared up in the segregated South and they just clicked and became friends,” says Andrews’ 84-year-old sister, Shirley Andrews Lowrie, who lives in Palmetto, Georgia. “They knew the hard times.”
Andrews’ work depicted not only Black people and Southern life, but also other people who’d suffered injustice and misfortune. His subjects included victims of the Holocaust to New Orleans residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Andrews also was an activist, and he pushed to increase representation of Black artists at major museums.
When Andrews and Lewis got together, says Shirley Andrews Lowrie, Andrews’ sister, they would reminisce over civil rights marches and lunch counter demonstrations. Both particularly enjoyed reliving a story that Lewis frequently told audiences about his childhood years in rural Troy, Alabama. At that time, he said, he was so enamored of his faith that he would preach to his family’s chickens. Andrews actually painted this scene as part of his John Lewis Series, which is featured in Haskins’ children’s book.
After Andrews died of cancer, in 2006, Lewis spoke at his memorial service, at The Cooper Union college in New York. “I loved Benny Andrews,” the congressman told mourners in a eulogy to which many still refer. “I loved him because he was real. He was not shadows. He was not hazy memories or a misty fog of secrets. He was real. He was as real and steady of the red clay hills of Georgia, as real as the deep, chocolate earth of a fertile land.”
Thornton Dial grew up in segregated, rural Alabama, just like Lewis. By day, Dial worked at the Pullman Car Company making railroad cars; by night, however, he kept company with his greatest love outside of family: sculpting with metal. In 1997, that passion led to a meeting in Atlanta with Lewis, at the unveiling of a Dial sculpture, “The Bridge.” Like Lawrence’s painting, the sculpture depicted the 1965 march across Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, which is near the Dial family home.
“He probably worked on that longer than he worked on any piece,” Richard Dial, the late Dial’s son and now an artist himself, says with a chuckle. From the day the sculpture was unveiled, Richard says, Dial and Lewis struck up a lifelong friendship, occasionally meeting in the coming years at art shows around the country. “I think the reason why John Lewis meant so much to me was because daddy was kind of like him,” says the younger Dial, now 66. “(My father) was one of the kindest guys you would ever want to meet—he also had this quiet side about him. I think that’s the reason they got along so good.”
Keith Washington first met Lewis when he was volunteering at the Democratic National Convention in 2000 in Los Angeles. For years, their friendship revolved around election polling data, but about 5 years ago, both of them found themselves at the same auction for works by Black artists. Washington and Lewis were competing to take home Elizabeth Catlett’s “Doors of Justice,” a painting of a Black couple opening a door to let in several other Black people. Lewis won.
“I gave him the hardest time about it,” Washington told me. From there, the two formed a friendship around art. They attended auctions together, and Lewis, shortly before his death, gave Washington a Romare Bearden painting as a gift. Whenever an auction catalog would arrive in the mail, Washington recalls, Lewis would get excited—and get play-angry if he learned, in one of their morning phone calls, that Washington’s catalog had arrived first.
At one point, the two signed up for an art appreciation class with renowned Black artist and art champion David Driskell. Lewis drank in everything during that class, happily taking photos with starstruck classmates. Afterward, Washington says, Lewis developed a new appreciation for Black abstract artists, most notably painter Sam Gilliam.
In the final days of Lewis’ life in Atlanta, Washington got a chance to spend more time with his old friend. As they talked about art, Washington says, it seemed to offer some temporary relief from his cancer, and lighten his spirit. “No matter what John Lewis was going through,” Washington recalls, “two things would make his mood better—political polls and art.”