Nashville Councilwoman Faces Down GOP Lawmakers Who Want To Rename John Lewis Way After Trump

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If a pair of Tennessee lawmakers have their way, a stretch of a Nashville street named for the late congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis would be renamed for former President Donald Trump. 

Nashville Councilwoman Zulfat Suara, a Democrat who was chair of the Rep. John Lewis Way Committee, spoke to TPM about why the proposal is “an insult” and how she plans to fight it.

“It’s not even about who they want to name it after. It’s the whole idea that we would have a hero in our midst, would name the street after him, and then somebody says in 2023 you cannot,” Suara said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “For my kids’ sake, I hope it doesn’t happen.” 

Lewis, who passed away in mid-2020, was a towering figure in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. As the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a leading anti-segregation group, he was one of the key organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis was also one of the original 13 “Freedom Riders” who braved arrests and violence while riding bus lines in the South in an effort to press for integration along the routes. He was, famously, brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers while leading a 1965 march for voting rights. In the 1980s, Lewis moved to Georgia and began a career in electoral politics. A Democrat, Lewis spent time on Atlanta’s City Council before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served for over three decades. 

After Lewis’ death, Suara and other local activists pushed to have a street named for him due to his ties to the city. Lewis attended college in Nashville and his history of starting what he famously dubbed “good trouble” arguably began there. The first of his many arrests came when he and other student activists staged a series of landmark sit-ins at lunch counters in the downtown stretch of the city. 

Highlighting Lewis’ ties to Nashville was a major motivation behind the drive to dedicate “Rep. John Lewis Way.” 

“People talk about his story, about his history, but people don’t always make the connection to Nashville,” Suara explained.  

“During the Civil Rights era in the 60s, he and his colleagues were the ones that actually had the sit-ins in Nashville that desegregated the lunch counters in the South,” she said, adding, “There’s a whole history of him … having rallies, of having marches, and then doing the sit-ins in Nashville that sometimes doesn’t get told.”

Suara and the other activists who sought to honor Lewis selected Nashville’s Fifth Avenue because it is home \several of the lunch counters and two of the bus stations where the Freedom Riders embarked on their journeys. The street was renamed by the city in 2020. It was officially dedicated in his honor the following year at a ceremony that included former Vice President Al Gore, a Tennessean, and members of Lewis’ family. 

In recent weeks, two Republican lawmakers in the state, Rep. Paul Sherrell and Sen. Frank Niceley, introduced legislation that would rename a portion of the street named for Lewis as “President Donald Trump Boulevard.” City leaders are unable to stop the measure because, as the local news channel WKRN has reported, “state law supersedes local ordinances.” 

Sherrell and Niceley have not responded to multiple requests for comment from TPM. Their proposal quickly drew national attention and generated backlash, including a petition with thousands of signatures. Suara and other local activists are also planning a rally to protest the plan in Nashville’s Public Square Park on Saturday. While Suara said some people suggest the city could simply rename the street again, she would prefer not to see it change in the first place. 

“I hate the message that it sends to my kids, and other kids who watched the naming of that street, to get it taken down,” Suara said. 

Suara is a Black Nigerian immigrant who is the first Muslim woman ever elected in Tennessee. Lewis’ work is particularly meaningful to her. 

“If not for what he did … we can infer that I may not even be an elected official today,” Suara said. 

While Lewis’ activism has clear resonance in her life, Suara believes his work should be meaningful to everyone. 

“What I love about the legacy and what he did with his peers was that, even though they were young, even though they were just students, they saw something that was not right and they did something about it,” she said. “It’s such a heroic story that you don’t have to be violent, you don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to be anything but each of us can make a difference where we are.”

Trump, on the other hand, is not someone Suara believes should be honored with a street in Nashville. 

“There’s no connection. … We picked Fifth Avenue for a reason and we picked it for all the connections that it had to John Lewis,” said Suara. “There’s no connection to that street for the former president and so it really doesn’t make any sense.”

Trump and Lewis also have their own turbulent history. Lewis pointedly boycotted Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Trump repeatedly attacked Lewis for the move — including after the congressman’s death. In light of that history, Suara — echoing sentiments from one of Lewis’ cousins — called the proposed legislation “a slap in the face.”

“That’s the way that a lot of us are looking at it. The family has come out to say as much,” Suara said. “It’s so uncalled for, so unnecessary, and not needed here in Nashville.”  

The two legislators behind the proposal do not represent the Nashville area. Their proposal would not rename the entire street; instead, it would focus on an area that includes the state office building. When asked if she felt the proposal was racist, Suara declined to say. 

“I cannot speak for the intent of the sponsors, but what I can infer … is that, since it’s only affecting their office building, then it’s because probably at least one of the sponsors doesn’t want the address on their card,” Suara said. 

The issue of street names has been a contentious one in the South. In recent years there has been a growing movement to take down monuments and street names honoring Confederate generals. In 2016, lawmakers in Tennessee approved legislation that made it more difficult to rename streets or relocate statues that were erected to memorialize the dead. The proposal to rename “Rep. John Lewis Way” would remove some of those protections. 

Suara noted some activists are suggesting that the city could take advantage of those protections being removed. In addition to rerenaming the street for Lewis, they could retaliate by taking advantage of the measure to strip honors for Confederate leaders. For her part, Suara would rather avoid the fight entirely.

“Yes, we can go back and rename it again. We can go back and take down the name of another street that they have,” she said. “But how long are we going to keep doing that? We have a lot of important issues. … There are more important things for us to focus our energy and our political power on than streets.”

Suara has heard that, due to the “backlash,” Sherrell and Niceley do not have sufficient support for their proposal to get a floor vote. For now, she is cautiously optimistic that the legislation could be killed. 

“Until it’s actually taken off the calendar or maybe even killed in committee we cannot completely celebrate yet, but it appears as if they are not going to do it,” Suara said.

Whatever happens, she and the other local activists plan to move forward with their rally on Saturday,

“If they come out and say … that they’re not doing this, oh that would be great. We’ll just have a party on Saturday and celebrate Lewis’ birthday. … His birthday is February 21,” Suara explained. “If the bill is off the record and they’re not pushing it any more, then we can just have a birthday celebration.” 

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