The life and work of one of America’s greatest leaders inspired a special design by an MNPS student.
Ibtihal Cheko, a Rose Park Magnet Math and Science Middle School eighth-grader last year, drew a striking portrait of the late John Lewis for the dedication of Nashville’s Rep. John Lewis Way (formerly Fifth Avenue). Ibtihal’s design, which shows the words “Black Excellence” in a halo over Lewis’s head, will be featured on masks provided to participants at the event.
Lewis, who died on July 17, 2020, at the age of 80, was a national civil rights leader for 60 years after getting his start as a college student leading sit-ins to protest segregated lunch counters in downtown Nashville.
He went on to participate in the Freedom Rides, lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, speak at The March on Washington, lead the “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., and represent Atlanta in Congress for more than 33 years, frequently putting his life on the line and getting arrested some 40 times as he got into what he loved to call “good trouble.”
“John Lewis has always been a great inspiration to me,” said Ibtihal, who will be a freshman at Hume-Fogg Magnet High School this year. “He’s the epitome of Black excellence.”
Ibtihal learned about the mask design opportunity from her Rose Park art teacher, Becky Smith, on a Thursday afternoon and had until the following Monday to complete the work. She said she was fascinated by the fact that Lewis and his fellow activists often knew exactly what could happen to them as a result of their carefully planned protests.
“They knew they were probably going to get beat by policemen. They knew they were probably going to get bitten by dogs. They knew they were probably going to get beat and harassed and ridiculed, but they did it anyway.”
State Senator Brenda Gilmore, one of the organizers of Saturday’s events, said Ibtihal’s design is a beautiful picture of Lewis. She said the lines on the late Congressman’s face show “his concern for the country and for all people.”
“It just captured the spirit and the essence of Representative John Lewis,” Gilmore said.
Three other MNPS students – Lauren Birdwell of J.T. Moore Middle School, Joey Brawner of Hillsboro High, and Hazel Ford of Meigs Middle – also submitted designs featuring Lewis’s likeness or his “good trouble” motto. Gilmore said all four designs will be displayed during the celebration Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Ryman Auditorium, which will follow a formal dedication ceremony at Rep. John Lewis Way and Jefferson Street at 9 a.m. and a 1.2-mile march that Gilmore will lead from the dedication site to the Ryman.
Breakfast also will be served from 7:30-8:30 a.m. Saturday (while supplies last) at Rep. John Lewis Way and Jefferson Street. All events are free, but tickets are required to attend the celebration program at the Ryman Auditorium, which is sold out.
Rep. John Lewis Way runs along Fifth Avenue from Jefferson Street through downtown – and past several of the old lunch counter sites – to Oak Street at Nashville City Cemetery. The Metro Council voted in November to rename the street.