An Ode to Our Civil Rights Leaders in Atlanta
When you meet certain people in life, you never forget the date.
September 10, 2018.
That’s when I met Congressman John Lewis.
That was a big year for me. Earlier, in the summer, I had become a first-time father and an NBA head coach. It was a pivotal moment in my life, becoming responsible for the growth of others. And I fully embraced the duty to lead. But I didn’t really know at the time all that would mean.
I’ve prepared my entire career for my job as a head coach by working with players and learning how to execute on the court through film, drills, and communication. But no one prepares you for leadership off the court. No one teaches you, for instance, how to lead — beyond basketball, even — when you’re confronted with a pandemic and an historic fight for racial justice. No one teaches you how to be an activist.
Since I’ve been in Atlanta, my whole mission has been to connect with people of greatness — with real LEADERS.
Not just people who have been considered great in their field, but people who are well-known for having a deep-seated passion for the work that they do.Since I’ve been in Atlanta, my whole mission has been to connect with people of greatness — with real LEADERS.
John Lewis was one of those people.
But I’ve actually met many of those kinds of people in ATL.
Take Ambassador Andrew Young, for example. He was an early leader of the civil rights movement, like Congressmen Lewis, and was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I first met Ambassador Young when he came to speak to our team at our Breakfast Club, one of our “behind-closed-doors” events that we organize for our guys. He spoke about what it meant to be a Black man living in Atlanta, and about how to understand the importance of this city. More importantly, he spoke from his heart and without reservation. To this day, I continue to hold him in the highest regards. I want to thank Ambassador Young for being a dear friend, an icon, and a true leader for our city.
That’s the thing I love about Atlanta. Here, John Lewis was in good company.
I remember one time when I received an invitation to visit a (then) 96-year-old Reverend Joseph Lowery at his home. I took my lead assistant, Melvin Hunt, and my main liaison to all things Atlanta, Ericka Hill, with me to the Cascade area where the Reverend resided. We were welcomed by his daughter, Cheryl (now a great friend of mine), who let me know that I was invited for two reasons. One, Rev. Lowery wanted to meet “the new young Black coach.” And two, he wanted to talk hoops.
Courtesy of Lloyd Pierce
Rev. Lowery was my guy. I was instantly drawn to his warmth and wit. I loved every minute of the jabs at Melvin and me and our young team. When we did share more somber moments, I was inspired by what was clearly an undeniable commitment to others that he had throughout his career. He led throughout his life, from the pulpit to the streets. We admired the walls throughout his home, filled with reminders and memories of his journey, his history, and ultimately, his influence on our nation for Black people — both spiritually and as an advocate for racial justice.
Last October, Rev. Lowery invited my wife and me as special guests to his 98th birthday celebration. Sitting at the table with Christine King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s only living sibling, and celebrating the Reverend’s life, we were truly humbled. That night was also my last time seeing him. It was truly an honor to be his friend, and I’m committed to assisting Cheryl in any way I can moving forward with the Lowery Institute at Clark Atlanta University.
I’m honored to stand before some of the greatest Black leaders, especially leaders of the civil rights movement, in Atlanta.
This city is just different.
As a Black man living in the U.S., there’s no place I’d rather be.
I see Black people thrive in this city. I see Black communities genuinely provided for by Black leaders. True Black American heroes have and do actually exist here. And since I’ve lived here, I’ve been lucky enough to build REAL connections — to have meals with them and talk with them during workouts. We even hosted Ambassador Young’s birthday party at our facility. I’ve really tried to learn from these leaders and live out their vision through the manner in which I lead.
On the day that I met John Lewis, of course, all of this was on my heart.
We sat down in his office on Peachtree Street, in downtown Atlanta. I remember the walls more than anything. Like Rev. Lowery’s house, Congressman Lewis’ office was lined with rows and rows of incredible photos of his history, of his experience. It was like watching the John Lewis movie — altogether, those pictures told the story of his life.
As Congressman Lewis talked, he referenced the photos. At one point, he showed us a picture of him at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and talked about Bloody Sunday. (This was the first of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965. Lewis led a peaceful march across the bridge, walking straight into a sea of state troopers. They were beaten and tear-gassed, hence the name.)
Then Congressman Lewis brought out a picture of the March on Washington, and he talked about speaking there. He told our group he remembered being up at the podium and looking to the left and to the right and looking ahead and seeing hundreds of thousands of Black and white people crowded together. He talked about being the youngest speaker and having the opportunity to go inside the White House for the first time (and not knowing that he was going to be invited).
And there was a picture on the wall of him in the White House with the other members who spoke that day at the march. Congressman Lewis vividly recalled every single person in the picture and where they worked at the time and what they represented.It was like watching the John Lewis movie — altogether, those pictures told the story of his life.
I mean, can you imagine? Story after story. Just the amount of detail to every story. He could remember the year, he could remember the name, he could remember their job description. And this was something that occurred over 50 years ago!! It was like watching someone recite a phonebook from memory. I was amazed.
Every time the Congressman went back in time in his stories, his assistant would leave the room and immediately return with an image to further depict what was being said. Surely this had not been their first time aligning to host guests, but it was amazing to watch it all unfold. I felt like I was a kid in history class, and my teacher was this dapper, soft-spoken, just profoundly humble man. And once our staff started to ask questions, he immediately leaned into his role as a true historian and leader of change and people, extremely passionate in sharing his memories.
I left the office of Congressman Lewis in awe of his greatness but amazed at his humility. It was exactly what I needed to help me understand how to really be a leader in the city of Atlanta.
Seeing those photos and the picture-covered walls of his office made a powerful impression on me. It made me think about how important it is that we honor our Black heroes. It also made me realize the importance of how we honor them.
Lawrence Jackson/AP Images
It’s like that scene in Do The Right Thing, where Spike Lee’s character is sitting in Sal’s Pizzeria, and he’s talking about how you never see examples of African-American heroes on the walls at restaurants or other public places.
We have to immortalize these men and women as much as we can — in statues, in museums, on walls — to illustrate to our next generation what the fight for equality really looks like. And teach them who those early people were who started the work.
If they see them, especially in hollowed places, they can truly begin to imagine what’s attainable — and be inspired to demand more.
That’s why I decided to write this. I’ve been fortunate enough to have real connections with the leaders I’ve met here in Atlanta, like John Lewis and Ambassador Young and Rev. Lowery. It’s had this powerful effect on me that I never could have predicted. To meet them because of my position was remarkable, but to understand who they are was even better. And now, to lose three of them in a year, during this time, during this movement, a press release or statement from the team didn’t feel right. I needed to speak from the heart.
Rest in peace to Reverend C.T. Vivian, Reverend Joseph E. Lowery, and Congressman John Lewis. The year 2020 has taken three of Atlanta’s, and the nation’s, most influential civil rights leaders — in the midst of a trying social and political time and on top of a global health pandemic.
I’ve learned through them that being a leader off the court requires a commitment to others and a commitment to tackling the unforeseen challenges affecting our community beyond basketball.
When I was named head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, the outline of my duties did not specifically address the communal responsibility that I would have to take on, or say anything about fighting for racial justice. It didn’t say anything about being an activist.
But as a father and a head coach, I don’t know how else I could possibly lead without being one. I wouldn’t be doing my job — fighting for what I know is right, speaking the truth, and standing up for, and on behalf of, Atlanta, a city whose population is more than 50% Black.If they see them, especially in hollowed places, they can truly begin to imagine what’s attainable — and be inspired to demand more.
I thought about this that day, when I left John Lewis’ office. If I wasn’t an activist when I walked through his door, I definitely was when I walked out.
I am an activist because Atlanta is special.
I am an activist because of the young men I coach.
I am an activist because of my daughter, Maya Joy.
And I am an activist because of men like John Lewis and Reverend Lowery and many others.
To Reverend Lowery: Your Hawks team won’t be as young anymore, so you can stop making jokes about Melvin and me! Ambassador Young will be there to attest to that, and we’ll make you proud.
To Reverend Vivian: I regret never having the opportunity to meet you, but your son, Al, is already educating our Hawks organization on inclusivity so that we can continue your commitment to improving our nation, no matter how many times we get knocked down.
And to John Lewis: If such leadership becomes problematic at times, requiring me to get into “good trouble,” “necessary trouble,” then I’m committed to doing so.
Rest in power.