I’ll never let an idea slip away again. Those ideas that pop up, and we let those sit in the back of our minds, then they are gone. Poof! But I learned my lesson a year ago.
On July 18, 2020, an idea popped into my head: Rename Fifth Avenue in memory of John Lewis, who had died the day before on July 17.
When my friend Susan Allen Huggins asked me, “How do we get this done?” I knew Metro Council would have to approve an ordinance and, within days, we learned that the Minority Caucus had the same idea and asked council member Zulfat Suara to lead the effort.
It was in Nashville that Lewis started his journey as an activist, playing an integral part in the Nashville Movement. As a college student, he was a participant in James Lawson’s workshops on nonviolent change, then as a leader in the lunch counter sit-ins and as one of the 13 original Freedom Riders.
Too few people know Lewis charted his course in the social justice and equality movement here in the basements of churches in North Nashville and on the campuses of the American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) and Fisk University.
Too few people know that Lewis was first arrested in downtown Nashville by police during the effort to desegregate lunch counters in 1960.
Too few people know that Lewis, at age 23, was the youngest person to speak from the podium at the legendary March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Too few people know that Lewis found his way in Nashville.
Part of the idea included calling the street “Way” versus “Avenue” to create a play on words that reflected the late civil rights icon and legislator’s way of taking action and continuing to fight for what he felt was just and true and the belief in equality for all.
During our first conversation with Zulfat, none of us dreamed about this past Saturday’s events; we wanted to work together and honor John Lewis’ legacy and create awareness that his path for social justice started here.
Our committee continued to grow, bringing together a cross section of our community: elected officials, the business community, our educational institutions — all with a common goal. I made new friends along the way and encountered so many special people to achieve the goal.
Our grassroots effort, however, went to another level when Samar Ali and the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy came on board and brought Paul Winston to Nashville to serve as executive producer for the weekend’s events. He has worked on operations teams for eight Super Bowls and produced the National Memorial Day Concert and A Capitol Fourth Celebration for the past 20 years. He also has worked on the 1997, 2013, 2017 and 2021 presidential inaugurations.
This past Saturday, finally, a year later and delayed by a pandemic, the street was formally dedicated as Rep. John Lewis Way in the most spectacular fashion.
With Paul’s vision, he urged our committee to think bigger and make the weekend’s events a celebration of Rep. Lewis and Nashville’s role in the civil rights movement.
On Saturday, we walked down Rep. John Lewis Way to a spiritual, impactful celebration at the Ryman Auditorium and celebrated his life and the ideas that we can be better, we can do better and that we must continue to fight for our beliefs.
Walking out of the Ryman onto Rep. John Lewis Way, I was struck by another thought: I’ll never bury an idea again.
Greg Bailey, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a founding principal of Finley + Bailey Strategic Communications. A Nashville native, he began his career in journalism before moving into public relations nearly 30 years ago. He is the 2021 chair of the Public Relations Society of America’s College of Fellows.