Rochester, N.Y., Is Home To Building-Size Mural Of Late Rep. John Lewis Why did a mural of civil rights giant John Lewis recently go up in Rochester? One of the artists is from there, and it turns out, a group of nuns from Rochester helped to save Lewis' life in 1965.
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Rochester, N.Y., Is Home To Building-Size Mural Of Late Rep. John Lewis

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Rochester, N.Y., Is Home To Building-Size Mural Of Late Rep. John Lewis

Rochester, N.Y., Is Home To Building-Size Mural Of Late Rep. John Lewis

Rochester, N.Y., Is Home To Building-Size Mural Of Late Rep. John Lewis

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Why did a mural of civil rights giant John Lewis recently go up in Rochester? One of the artists is from there, and it turns out, a group of nuns from Rochester helped to save Lewis' life in 1965.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tributes poured in when civil rights pioneer John Lewis died this summer. And after that, more enduring memorials took shape. In Rochester, N.Y., a group of artists recently finished a building-sized mural. Some of the city's residents had a big place in the late congressman's heart. James Brown from member station WXXI has the story.

JAMES BROWN, BYLINE: Ephraim Gebre relished the thought of making an enduring tribute to Lewis in Gebre's hometown.

EPHRAIM GEBRE: With his recent passing, I know this has devastated a lot of people. So we just wanted to kind of pay homage to him and his name and his legacy and also, you know, bring Danny Lyon's image to life.

BROWN: When I caught up with him and fellow artist Jared Diaz, they were climbing up and down scaffolding against the side of a building in downtown Rochester. They were outlining a 3,000 square foot image of John Lewis looking fierce in front of an audience in 1963. It's based on a photograph by Danny Lyon. It's called "I Am Speaking." And it's the latest mural in their "I Am" series. Other murals are in Chicago and Louisville. For Diaz, the project is about showing people of color in powerful roles.

JARED DIAZ: One thing I want them to see is people of color represented, people of color who've played meaningful roles in society represented and for that to be permanent and for them to see that done at the highest level possible.

BROWN: What the artists didn't know is about Lewis' links to Rochester. Lewis was a close friend of the late Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. They met on their first day in Congress in 1986. Slaughter brought him to her district years before to meet some old friends who Lewis said saved his life half a century ago. At Slaughter's memorial in 2018, Lewis recalled the meeting.

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JOHN LEWIS: It was there I met two nuns who had taken care of us when we were hurt in Selma, Ala., in 1965. They cried. They hugged me. I cried. And Louise cried.

BROWN: In 1965, Lewis led hundreds of protesters in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. They were beaten so badly that the day became known as Bloody Sunday. He suffered a skull fracture. The nuns of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester gave him first aid. That day and the waves of marches that followed are widely credited with the passing of the Voting Rights Act five months later. This giant portrait of Lewis now has a permanent place in Rochester's skyline. And it's very close to a statue of another civil rights pioneer. Just a block away, Frederick Douglass gave one of his most famous speeches, "What To A Slave Is The Fourth Of July?"

For NPR News, I'm James Brown in Rochester, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER'S "CANVAS")

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