The nation faced the loss of a civil rights icon with the passing of Rep. John Lewis, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer July 17 at age 80. As his legacy is remembered and plans for honors are finalized, legislators have also been tasked with choosing his successor due to an urgent legal deadline, according to reports.
Georgia State Sen. Nikema Williams won an overwhelming vote in Congress to succeed Lewis, and she is well-known for getting into the kind of “good trouble” Lewis championed. Back in 2018, she was arrested during a protest against the results of the contentious Georgia gubernatorial election. (The criminal charges were later dropped.) When appealing to fellow Democrats last week to nominate her for the seat, this moment stood as an example of her dedication to civil rights.
Related story: Remembering Rep. John Lewis: A Civil Rights Icon
“I learned from Congressman Lewis how to speak up and speak out for my constituents,” she said before the vote Monday. “He showed me the value of putting myself, sometimes physically, in between the dangerous policies and the most vulnerable communities they hurt.”
Check out more on Williams’ life and career:
Like Lewis, Williams grew up in rural Alabama.
Williams’s grandparents raised her in a town called Smiths Station, which is located just over the Georgia state line, a parallel to Lewis’s upbringing she pointed out during her speech last Monday. Her grandfather was a prominent community leader, and her great aunt Autherine Lucy was the first Black student to attend the University of Alabama in 1956, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“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.
She attended Talladega College, an HBCU, where she became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology.
Williams serves as the Chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia.
When appointed, she was the first Black woman to hold the position. She is also a member of the Executive and Resolution Committees of the Democratic National Committee.
In 2017, she was elected to the Georgia State Senate in a district that intersects with the district Lewis represented. She represents Georgia’s 39th District, which includes Atlanta, East Point, College Park, Union City, and South Fulton. As part of the State Legislature, she advocates for working families, voting rights, fair representation and community improvement. She is also a member of the Economic Development and Tourism, Retirement, MARTOC, State and Local Government Operations, Urban Affairs, and Special Judiciary committees.
Williams served as vice president of Public Policy at Planned Parenthood Southeast until 2018.
In this position, she was the primary contact with leaders and partners in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi to help build long-term public policy, legislative, and community engagement programs for the reproductive healthcare organization.
Williams was one of 130 applicants and will be the first Black woman to hold the representative position for the late Lewis’s seat, representing Georgia’s Fifth District.
Other finalists vying for the position included James Woodall, the president of the Georgia NAACP, Park Cannon, who at 24, became the youngest member of the Georgia General Assembly in 2016, and Andre Dickens, who serves on the Atlanta City Council.
In a statement, Sachin Varghese, the state party’s general counsel explained the executive committee’s decision to appoint Williams to the role.
“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,” Varghese said.