An ode to civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis

Audrey Maloof, smiles in front of the John Lewis mural located on Auburn Ave in Downtown Atlanta. Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

In the fall of 2016, Georgia State alumna Audrey Maloof made a decision that changed her life in immeasurable ways. 

After her first semester of college, Maloof moved back to Atlanta and was unsure of her next step. When she learned that Rep. John Lewis’ office held open interviews for an internship position, she was quick to apply.

Anticipating a long line of applicants, Maloof showed up to Lewis’ office an hour and a half early. Her evident dedication ultimately got her the job, and while the position was temporary, Maloof continued to work in the office until it closed in March due to COVID-19.

Throughout the four years of working closely with Lewis, Maloof accompanied the congressman to black-tie galas, public events and their office “family dinners.”

Her internship was initially chaotic, as she took the position shortly before the 2016 presidential election. After Lewis announced that he wouldn’t attend President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the office fielded complaints and even death threats.

Aside from the phone ringing off the hooks, Maloof appreciated her time spent with Lewis, whom she regards “as close to human perfection as you can get.”

One of her favorite memories with Lewis was John R. Lewis Elementary School opening in DeKalb County. Maloof and her dad crafted a Little Free Library, donned with a ribbon for Lewis to cut and unveil it. 

The little library was symbolic for Lewis, and he told his story of being denied a library card as a teenager, and decades later, returning to that same library to hold his book signing.

Maloof admires many of Lewis’ qualities, but she most hopes to emulate his genuineness. 

“[He displayed] genuine kindness and humility,” Maloof said. “I think that was my favorite thing about him because a lot of the challenging things that he did in his career and a lot of the amazing things [he accomplished], he was only able to do because he had this genuine kindness and unconditional love for every single human being.”

When Maloof decided to launch her campaign for the Georgia State House of Representatives for the City of Decatur, District 83, she set up a meeting with her mentor.

“I really wanted [Lewis’] blessing, not just his endorsement but his blessing,” Maloof said. “I told him [about my plan] and that I really want to make a difference, and he was like, ‘Do it. We clearly need more young voices, and if there’s anything I can do to help you at all, I will.’ It was a very wonderful conversation to have with him.”

From that day, Maloof worked tirelessly to perfect her campaign. The summer after graduating, she was one of 80 applicants to be accepted into The Campaign School at Yale summer program.

“[My goal] was to build a campaign plan by then, so I can go there and get the top experts in the country when it comes to campaigning, to just tear my plan to shreds,” Maloof said. “I went there with one plan and came back with a completely different plan.”

As a newly minted college graduate, Maloof had to work overtime to prove herself to fellow politicians and the public.

In January, Maloof spent time canvassing Super Voters, the most dedicated Democrats who never miss an election. For a politician on the left, this is generally the most receptive audience.

Maloof knocked on one door and engaged in a shared discussion about her platform and policies. As she walked away, Maloof felt confident that she’d secured that voter’s support.

“As I’m leaving, he goes, ‘I’ll call you when I need a babysitter,’” she said. “[I’m thinking], ‘Did you even listen to anything that I just said, or did you only hang onto the fact that I’m 23 years old?’”

Age wasn’t Maloof’s only hurdle to overcome. As her campaign neared its last few months, which Maloof refers to as the most critical period, COVID-19 struck.

The pandemic-induced restrictions forced the election date back by three weeks, leaving her with $5,000 worth of outdated printed material. She was also unable to continue canvassing, instead starting personal birthday calls for registered voters, which helped garner success.

On election day, the youth turnout increased by 100% within the district, which Maloof credits to her campaign. The general voter turnout also increased by about 96%, with roughly 15,000 submitted ballots

Ultimately, Maloof’s votes fell short, and incumbent Becky Evans was re-elected as the District 83 representative. Despite the outcome, she feels “very proud of the campaign I ran.”

When Lewis passed away in July, the city, state and nation were in mourning. Maloof knew that she had to do something to honor his legacy. 

Maloof set out to work with the DeKalb County commissioner and Decatur mayor to create the John Lewis Commemorative Task Force. While the committee is still in its early phases, Maloof envisions creating a space to celebrate the late congressman’s memory.

She has her eye on an empty lot in downtown Decatur, which is within Lewis’ district. Three months ago, a Confederate monument was removed from the city’s square, and Maloof hopes to reclaim the space.

“When the congressman passed away, [I realized], we have a place where a hateful monument once stood, and that could really be something cool to honor the congressman and to take that spot over,” she said. 

Today, Maloof continues to fight for democracy by working with the Progressive Turnout Project and adds that “voter protection and engagement is really top of mind for me right now.”

She plans to run another campaign in the future, but for now, Maloof is focusing on remembering lessons from her mentor.

“Every day, my work is just spent to honor his legacy, honor everything he did and carry on all of the positive things he brought to this world,” she said.