“We must be brave, bold, and courageous,” Representative John Lewis of Georgia used to say at a rally against the Trump administration’s family separation policy, echoing the words he had spoken more than fifty years ago in a very similar scenario.
Having lived to see the first Black president sworn in at the White House, the congressman said goodbye last Friday at age 80, losing a six-month battle with cancer.
Saying goodbye to Lewis at such a critical time for the country is not only sad but foreboding: The struggle for civil rights is as alive as ever and needs leadership to match it.
Before he died, the congressman had won the primary to remain in office as a representative of Georgia’s fifth congressional district. If he had won, he would have begun his 18th term with broad support from his constituents.
However, the turn of life has forced the Democratic Party to choose someone who can take the seat of a man who was key to the country’s history as he is to its current moment. That person is Nikema Williams, state senator and chairwoman of Georgia’s state party.
According to The Washington Post, Williams was selected by the 44-member state Democratic Party executive committee after a stringent selection process.
In a statement, Sachin Varghese, the state party’s general counsel, said that members of the executive committee agreed that Williams’s “years of service to the Fifth District and commitment to justice make her the best possible candidate for this role, with a very important legacy to uphold.”
He added that “this was a very difficult decision to make so soon after Congressman Lewis’s passing.”
With a family history of community leadership, Williams is a native of Smiths Station, Alabama, and trained at Talladega College with a degree in Biology. After moving to Atlanta in 2002, she joined the Young Democrats of Georgia and began her political career as vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood Southeast.
In 2011 she was elected as the first vice president of the Georgia Democratic Party, and in 2017 she won a special election to the State Senate following the resignation of Vincent Fort.
In January 2019, she was elected to lead the Georgia Democratic Party, becoming the first Black woman, the third woman, and the second African American to chair the party.
In November, Williams will be able to join the U.S. House of Representatives, not only taking the place of a titan in the struggle for freedom and civil rights but also when the country is crying out for leaders who can change the way things are going.
“It’s surreal that we’re forced to harden this nomination process while still grieving,” she said in her speech before the vote, noting that she considered Lewis to be a friend and mentor.
“Nobody could possibly fill the shoes of Congressman Lewis, but his leadership and fighting spirit is needed now more than ever in this country,” Williams said. “We need someone who’s not afraid to put themselves on the line for their constituents in the same way Congressman Lewis taught us to. I would be honored if you chose me to be that person.”