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‘Good Trouble Quilts’: Civil Rights Memorial Center exhibit celebrates John Lewis

John Lewis – civil rights icon, 17-term Georgia congressman, orator, preacher, author and one of the nation’s most formidable and unwavering fighters for racial justice – was a man of action.

In the indelible, era-defining newspaper photographs we remember of him in the 1960s, he is the 21-year-old co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; a Freedom Rider; the youngest speaker at the March on Washington; a courageous leader of hundreds of voting rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a day that almost became his last. We remember the brutal photos of Lewis being mercilessly beaten during protests and the police mug shots after his arrests time and again during his long quest to secure freedom and civil rights for Black people.

In the quieter moments of his life, Lewis, who died of cancer in 2020 at the age of 80, collected quilts, which he “loved,” said O.V. Brantley, co-founder of the Atlanta Quilt Festival, now in its 15th year.

In the festival’s first-ever, traveling exhibit, named “Good Trouble Quilts – Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Congressman John Lewis,” about 30 original art quilts will be displayed at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC) from today through April 28.

The opening of the exhibit, sponsored in part by the SPLC, coincides with Jubilee weekend celebrated in Montgomery and Selma from March 2 through March 5 to commemorate the beating Lewis and other activists endured while marching for voting rights on what is known as “Bloody Sunday,” on March 7, 1965.

Today, the SPLC held a wreath-laying ceremony at the Civil Rights Memorial in honor of Lewis as part of the organization’s Jubilee celebration.

“John Lewis is a beloved individual throughout the country, but he grew up here [44 miles from Montgomery], and was very intentional to bring people to the CRMC,” said Tafeni English-Relf, director of the CRMC and the SPLC’s new Alabama state office.

Lewis led a nearly annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama, sponsored by the Faith and Politics Institute, including a visit to the CRMC. Delegations of legislators on the pilgrimage saw places that were significant in the movement in Alabama.

“Because of the relationship the CRMC had with him, we are continuing to honor him,” English-Relf said. “The quilts show the artists’ perspective of who he was, built around him and his legacy in Alabama and his representation in Georgia.”

Register and Vote! by Rosalind Newell
With “Register and Vote!” Rosalind Newell pays homage to Lewis’ commitment to voting rights. (Courtesy of Atlanta Quilt Festival)

African American quilting tradition lives on

The idea for the traveling exhibit came to Brantley after she saw the rousing viewer reaction to the quilts when they were originally displayed at the Fulton County Southwest Arts Center in August 2022. The center, in Lewis’ former district, is home to the annual Atlanta Quilt Festival.

Brantley, a retired attorney, former SPLC interim general counsel and a longtime quilter, had put out a call via social media six months earlier requesting submissions of original art quilts. The quilts would interpret aspects of Lewis’ life and the achievements that each artist associated with him.

Brantley “was operating on faith,” she said, not knowing how many artists would respond.

Her faith was justified.

Thirty-four artists created quilts with evocative titles such as John Lewis Drum Major for Justice; Remembering Mother Lewis; Let’s Get Into Good Trouble; Zipping Up Racism; John Robert Lewis: The Boy from Troy; Good Trouble is Necessary Trouble; Bridge to Peace; Sailing Against the Wind; and He Preached to the Chickens.

More than a few of the quilts – and one framed, fabric and paint collage inspired by the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement – are titled Good Trouble or close variations. Those two defining words are taken from a speech Lewis made on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 1, 2020, and for which he may be best remembered.

The quilts show a broad range of styles and approaches. Many are brightly colored representational works. Sailing Against the Wind is notable for Melinda Rushing’s assemblage of small squares in primary colors against a dark background that creates a dramatic portrait of Lewis and brings painter Chuck Close to mind.

In Register and Vote!, Rosalind Newell pays homage to Lewis’ commitment to voting rights. She based her quilt on a poster Lewis commissioned when he became director of the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project in 1970. In Newell’s hands, the poster’s message, “Hands that pick cotton now can pick our elected officials,” is sewn at the top. Three fully fruited cotton branches, Black and Brown hand silhouettes representing cotton field workers and a Black hand casting a vote into a ballot box remind all Americans of the power of the vote. Newell incorporates an old newspaper photo of Lewis holding up the poster.

Many of the quilts employ text, taken either from Lewis’ famous quotes or to communicate their own personal message.

A number of the artists used reproduction fabrics of traditional African patterns as the background for widely recognized newspaper photos of Lewis, which the artists transferred onto fabric.

The use of these African patterns testifies to the artists’ connection with their own heritage as well as the integral role that quilting has played in the lives of African men and women both before and after they were enslaved in the U.S.

Just southwest of Selma, Alabama, the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers are the nation’s best-known group of contemporary quilters and descend from formerly enslaved people who remained on an Alabama plantation after the Civil War. The town they built was the site of the plantation’s former quarters for enslaved people. Gee’s Bend textile artists still create distinctive, bold, colorful geometric quilts that cannot be mistaken for any other.

Today, quilting groups such as the Brown Sugar Stitchers Quilt Guild, of which many of the exhibition’s artists are members, continue to serve as a way for women to bond and tell their own stories while helping others. (The guild honored John Lewis with a quilt that members made for him at their 10th anniversary celebration.)

The Boy from Troy by Peggy Martin
Peggy Martin's “The Boy from Troy” centers on the artist's favorite Lewis photos, including one of Lewis receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. (Courtesy of Atlanta Quilt Festival)

‘He put his life on the line’

For enslaved people, quilting was labor, a leisure activity and a bonding experience. In some instances, quiltmakers sold their creations and bought their freedom. For those enslaved people who could not read and escaped North to freedom along the Underground Railroad, some historians believe that directions in the form of secret codes were embedded in quilt patterns and hung outside for escapees to memorize. Harriet Tubman, a quilter, may have devised this escape aid.

For Peggy Martin, 69, a retired metro Atlanta educator and longtime student of civil rights history, the opportunity to create The Boy from Troy to honor her hero also brought her own life into view.

“I was 14 when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed,” Martin recalled. “The African American kids at my high school staged a protest. I felt like I grew up that day. I started reading Black history and civil rights history, books like Manchild in the Promised Land and Native Son, and I learned about John Lewis. I remember Fred Hampton being killed.”

Not surprisingly then, Martin’s quilt centers on her favorite photographs of Lewis, including one of former President Barack Obama placing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on him; a mug shot taken after he was arrested during a boycott; one of Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge; and one of a street sign for the John Lewis Freedom Parkway in downtown Atlanta. As background, Martin used a mud cloth-inspired black-and-white fabric for the border. She framed the photo transfers with a circular, African American-patterned fabric in different, bright colorways designed by an artist who goes by the name e bond and is a relative of Julian Bond, the late civil rights leader, Georgia lawmaker and the SPLC’s first president.

Martin and Lewis were both parishioners at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King was co-pastor with his father after leaving Montgomery in 1960. She would say hello to him in church, but when they both attended a production of Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963, produced in conjunction with the 2019 Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., Martin finally told Lewis what he meant to her.

“I told him how much I respected and loved him for what he has done for our people,” Martin said. “Voting was so crucial to him. He put his life on the line – he was beaten unconscious on the [Edmund Pettus] bridge. He believed in fighting for voters’ rights till the day he died. He got in good trouble.”

Remembering Mother Lewis by Ora Clay
Ora Clay chose pink, purple and orange fabrics for her quilt, “Remembering Mother Lewis.” (Courtesy of Atlanta Quilt Festival)

‘This is my story’

Quiltmaker Ora Clay chose an entirely different concept for her quilt, a joyful confection in pink, purple and orange fabrics titled, Remembering Mother Lewis.

“I had gone to a conference in Washington, D.C., where Black authors were talking about their books,” the retired school librarian said. “They all talked about their mothers. I read his biography and was really touched by his mother. When he came home, his mother wouldn’t say, ‘How is the movement?’ She would ask him how he was. That’s how mothers are, so happy to see us. And that’s what he takes away from her when he leaves.”

Clay relied on the only black-and-white photo of Lewis’ mother that she found online. But her imagination fired once she remembered a dark pink, silk flower lapel pin she had bought 30 years earlier. In a charming flourish, Clay’s Mrs. Lewis wears the actual pin sewn onto her pink suit.

“That’s where my color palette came from. She would have worn a beautiful silk flower.”

Clay, 77, understood the fear Lewis’ mother had for his safety.

“That older generation was scared and had a right to be. They focused on survival. My generation was focused on making things better. The older generation didn’t know why they were out there protesting, so they [Lewis and his mother] didn’t always agree. She knew he was going to jail, getting beat up, that he kept going, and she supported him anyway.

“We have to tell our story of African American culture,” Clay said. “We can’t depend on others to tell our story. This is my story. They can’t tell it as we can. Through our arts and quilts, we can do that.”

Photo at top: About 30 quilts inspired by John Lewis will be displayed at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center through April 28. (Credit: SPLC)