Stow council, mayor asks ODOT to name bridge after John Lewis

Proposal will be presented to state lawmakers

Laura Freeman
Kent Weeklies
Stow City Council wants to name the Steels Corners Road bridge over state Route 8 in honor of the late Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

STOW – City Council, with the support of Mayor John Pribonic, is hoping to honor the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

Council Sept. 10 unanimously voted to support naming the bridge on Steels Corners Road that travels over state Route 8 the “John Lewis Bridge.”

Lewis, who died July 17 of pancreatic cancer, served in Congress from 1987 to 2020 as U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District and was called the “conscience of Congress.” He also was known as an activist beginning in his college years at Fisk University in Tennessee where he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. In 1961 he organized the Freedom Riders and was among those who crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, where state troopers met the peaceful protesters with violence, and Lewis suffered a cracked skull. His motto of “good trouble” summed up his views on activism.

The Ohio Department of Transportation owns the bridge, but the legislation backed by city council asks for approval to name the bridge, which is the first step in the process. The legislation will be presented to the Ohio General Assembly to request that ODOT name the bridge in Mr. Lewis's honor.

“This would serve as a teachable moment, now and well into the future,” said Councilman Steve Hailer (Ward 3) who proposed the idea. “It would allow us, here in Ohio, to honor Representative Lewis’s historic march across the bridge in Selma, Alabama, and start a conversation about who he was and what he did for this country. I am hopeful that we will get the approval to honor the late congressman and pioneer of civil and equal rights.”

If the Ohio General Assembly passes the legislation, the city of Stow will plan a naming ceremony for March 7, 2021, to commemorate the historic day in Selma when Lewis and other civil rights activists marched across the bridge. As part of the ceremony, a march will begin at the Stow Municipal Court and continue across the bridge.

“I’m very passionate about this,” said Hailer.

In Lewis’s autobiography published in 2013, the late Congressman talked about going on a trip in 1951 from Alabama to Tennessee and through Kentucky to Ohio with his uncle, Hailer said. When they reached Ohio, Lewis said he could feel his uncle relax and he relaxed, too. They went to Buffalo to see a non-segregated city where they didn’t have to worry about Jim Crow laws.

“This motion is about treating others with dignity and how you would want to be treated,” Hailer said. “We’re honoring his courage on March 7, 1965, at the bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he led 600 marchers all in the name of equality and justice. There’s no political message here. It’s about courage and honor.”

The inspiration for naming the bridge came from many sources, including the personal letters, emails and public comments that have been submitted over the past four months to the city of Stow.

In June, council unanimously passed a resolution to Promote Racial Equality in Stow, co-sponsored by Council members Sindi Harrison (Ward 2) and Christina Shaw (At Large). The proposed naming of the bridge continues the city’s commitment to fulfill the goals of that resolution.

Shaw said naming the bridge after Lewis was a good thing and was impactive and positive for those in Stow and those traveling through the city.

“John Lewis was a tremendous man, an incredible patriot and a staunch supporter of equal rights, and it would be a great honor for the city of Stow to rename the bridge after him,” Pribonic said.

People from all over the country drive on Route 8 and the name of John Lewis on the bridge will speak volumes, Pribonic said.

Although council members supported the legislation, Councilman Jeremy McIntire (At Large) said he did not agree with Lewis politically and there were mixed feelings across the city about the legislation. He said he supported Lewis as a civil rights leader.

“Bridges are meant to fill that gap in a divide,” McIntire said. “This bridge is very symbolic and fitting to be named after someone who did that from a symbolic standpoint.”

Council member Cyle Feldman (At Large) said the legislation initiates a conversation, which is a good thing. Council member Mario Fiocca (Ward 4) agreed with Feldman's sentiment.

“I view this overall not just [as] the renaming of a bridge but something to spur conversation about that moment in our nation’s history and what it led to regarding equality and civil rights,” said Fiocca. “It is something that will bring us all together and honor Congressman Lewis and his journey and the journey of our country. We’ve made progress but have a long way to go. It’s a good reflection point.”

Residents are encouraged to email their brief communication of support, including their address, to the Clerk of Stow City Council Lorree Villers at lvillers@stow.oh.us.

Gannett reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at lfreeman@recordpub.com