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Birmingham’s Newest Mural Honors Civil Rights Icon, John Lewis

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Artist Dewon Moton in front of the unfinished John Lewis Mural in downtown Birmingham on 4th Avenue North. (Pat Byington/Bham Now)
By Pat Byington
bhamnow.org

Four months later, Lee Pantazis’s secret is out. 

Last August, Pantazis, Gus’s Hot Dogs owner, let me in on a secret. He told me that once his business secured the appropriate permits, he was going to have a mural painted on his establishment’s blank eastern wall honoring civil rights hero John Lewis, an Alabama native who died July 17.

For all the mural-seekers out there, the new mural is on 1915 4th Ave. North. The artist who painted the portrait and words of Lewis is Dewon Moton. 

I met up with Lee and Dewon on to ask both of them about the new mural and its message.

“During this trying year my crew and I got together to think about what we can do on a personal level. We took time off to go vote, We took time to get involved with local charities,” said Pantazis. “I’m a big believer in the value of art and the value and power of education. I wanted to celebrate with my guys and a local artist Dewan Moton, an Alabama hero.

Pantazis added, “John Lewis is someone who put his own personal health at risk throughout the entirety of his life to fight for people who didn’t have a voice. This is a man that made the world better. We should all be striving to have the same positive impact that he did.”

His Impact

Artist Dewon Moton and Gus’s Hot Dogs owner Lee Pantazis in front of the unfinished John Lewis Mural in downtown Birmingham on 4th Avenue North. (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

A native of Troy, Alabama, as a college student Lewis participated in the lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides. He also helped organize the Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights. Video and photos of Lewis and his fellow peaceful protesters being brutally beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by Alabama state troopers was broadcast around the world. The violence displayed on that day enraged the nation. As a result, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

Years later, Lewis became a congressman from Georgia and championed civil rights and human rights for three decades. 

“I am very proud that John Lewis is a citizen of Alabama and very proud to honor him,” Pantazis said. “Hopefully this mural will inspire our community to come together.  Like Lewis said: with a sense of love and community we can make the impossible possible.”

After my interview with Lee, I was able to briefly interrupt Dewon after he climbed down from his ladder putting some final touches on his rendering of Lewis.

“Murals have been my job every day for the past four-five years,” said Moton. “Since this whole situation with the movement and the pandemic happened it became more of a voice for me. I express what I feel through artwork. I feel that with the pandemic, people have had more time to stop and pay attention. I feel art has been one of those things bringing people back together. For me having that tool in my hand. I feel like I have magic.

Along with his installation downtown you can see Dewon’s magic in Ensley –  where he has murals at the entrance of the historic neighborhood and along the community’s 19th Street mural corridor.

The new Gus’s Hot Dogs mural sends a powerful message. Beside Lewis’s portrait are his words: “If you come together with a mission and it’s grounded with love and a sense of community, you make the impossible, possible.”

That message welcomes customers to Gus’s Hot Dogs and also the students at new Ed Farm headquarters across the street. It is less than a block from the Trailways bus depot where Freedom Riders were beaten by the Klan on Mother’s Day 1961. Continuing another block on 4th Avenue you enter the 4th Avenue Historic District, the center of black owned businesses in Birmingham during segregation.

What a magical gift to all of us.

“We are proud at Gus’s to honor John Lewis, work with Dewan and excited to have a little bit of art on a previously ugly blank wall,” Lee said with a smile.

We are too. 

For more on the modern, mobile guide to Birmingham, visit bhamnow.com