GFAF had the great pleasure of honoring Congressman John Lewis with the 2012 Charles L. Weltner Freedom of Information Award on April 11, 2012 at the offices of King & Spalding at 1180 Peachtree Street in Atlanta.
In accepting the award, Lewis spoke of the importance of a free press and the First Amendment to the civil rights movement that the Atlanta congressman helped lead. He said he always felt safer when the press was around.
“I really do believe that if it hadn’t been for the media, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings,” Lewis said.
In March of 1965, Lewis helped to spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the struggle – leading more than 600 peaceful protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, an effort to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. He and other marchers were brutally attacked during a confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” John Lewis nearly lost his life that day, but his efforts were instrumental in rallying support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.
And when he became a member of Congress himself, from Georgia’s Fifth District, Lewis continued to fight for fairness. He has been a consistent and persistent advocate of government transparency and accountability, and ethical leadership, throughout his career.
Lewis was introduced by Hank Klibanoff, co-author of “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.” A long-time journalist and, like Lewis, a native of Alabama, Klibanoff recalled an incident in which police sought to cover the windows of a bus in which civil rights activists were traveling, so that the press outside could not see what police did when they entered the vehicle.
The Weltner award is named for the former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Weltner, like Lewis, also served as Georgia’s Fifth District congressman but stepped down on principle rather than support the segregationist then being embraced by the Georgia Democratic Party and Lester Maddox.
GFAF, now in its eighteenth year, has worked closely with the Georgia Attorney General’s office, statewide county government, and judicial, educational and law enforcement organizations on training and education concerning Georgia’s open meetings and records laws. GBI Director Vernon Keenan was the recipient of the 2010 award. Recent winners have included Atlanta Journal-Constitution cartoonist Mike Luckovich; former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears and former Attorney General Michael Bowers and Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reporter Jim Houston. Other recipients have included Eason Jordan, former CNN newsgathering chief executive; Thurbert Baker, former Attorney General of Georgia; former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes; former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher ; U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson; and U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob .