Nikema Williams wins John Lewis' congressional seat
Lewis held the seat since 1987 until his death in July
Nikema Williams will not only become the first woman to serve as a representative in Georgia's 5th Congressional District, she is doing so in a district held since 1987 by the late civil rights icon John Lewis.
ABC News has projected Williams' win in a landslide victory against her Republican challenger Angela Stanton-King.
But she isn't cocky about winning.
"Nothing is for granted. In my race, we were in a full campaign because I know that voters' voices and the conversations with voters matter, and every vote counts," Williams said.
Williams is an Alabama native who moved to Atlanta in 2003. She and her husband Leslie Small, a former aide to John Lewis, have one son.
She attended Talladega College, a HBCU in Alabama where she joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. For Williams, historically African American Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities have made a difference in the Black community.
"Just look at the legacy of historically black colleges in this country. Someone made a graphic that the five black members of Congress in Georgia are all members of the 'Divine Nine'… and it was really powerful for me to just see the power and the impact of our Greek letter organizations in the Black community. We're often told that we need to go to mainstream institutions to get to be relevant in our society. And so this is a powerful moment for our Black institutions," Williams said.
No stranger to politics, Williams has served in the Georgia State Senate since 2017, and as the Democratic Party chair of Georgia prior to that. Following Lewis' death in July, she was selected by county Democrats to run in Lewis' place.
Now that she is officially serving in his district, she acknowledges that she has some pretty big shoes to fill.
"It's an overwhelming moment for me, and I don't think that I think the magnitude of the moment has set in. Lewis was a very personal friend to me. My husband worked for him for eight years. So while he was a national figure, [an] international figure ... he was a mentor and a friend to me. I understand that no one will ever be able to fill the shoes of Congressman Lewis, but I hope to live up to his legacy and build upon it as I start my own path," she said.
While she says will continue Lewis' legacy, she has ideas of her own. Her priorities in her first term include: creating a national response to the coronavirus pandemic, addressing child care costs, rebuilding the economy and passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The act is an effort by Democrats to restore a provision of the original 1965 voting rights legislation that mandated protections for people registering to vote in the South. The bill was renamed "The John Lewis Voting Rights Act" after Lewis’ death in tribute to the congressman. The bill passed in the House but has yet to pass in the Republican-led Senate.
"I want to fight out loud and on purpose for the promise of America, for everyone, regardless of where they grew up, regardless of their zip code, regardless of their bank account," Williams said.
But addressing the coronavirus, she said, is her priority.
"I am raising my five-year-old son who is in virtual kindergarten right now. … I know at one point, here in my zip code, it was the number one zip code in the state for COVID-19 and 80% of the hospitalizations were Black people. ... And then when we look at the people who are out of work from the pandemic ... our economy is also impacted, and especially in the Black community. So number one is a national response to this pandemic," Williams said.
Georgia has historically been a solid-red Republican state but in recent years it has turned more purple. In 2018, Stacey Abrams ran for governor, and while she did not win the election, Abrams' campaign showed that the state has become more of a battleground between Democrats and Republicans.
"Stacey Abrams showed us in 2018 what is possible," Williams said. "We see that there is power in our voices, and Georgians are continuing to show up and make sure that their voices are heard and that's not going away. We're going to continue to see Georgia and that column of 'battleground state' as we move forward."
Historically, African American voters in Georgia have been saddled with poll taxes, literacy and personal character tests as well as citizenship tests. The 1965 Voting Rights Act signed into law, in part by the efforts of John Lewis, was passed to stop voter suppression tactics.
During the 2020 primaries, Georgia again faced voting issues overwhelmingly affecting the state's African American voters. Extremely long lines, delayed poll openings, voting machine problems and a shortage of poll workers plagued the state, particularly in Fulton County, the largest county that includes Atlanta and DeKalb -- both predominately African American counties.
All of which is why Williams said the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is more important than ever.
"We might not be in a position where we're counting jellybeans in a jar, or our people are having a formal poll tax that they have to pay, but when you are closing polling locations at the last minute and not giving people proper notification, when people are having to wait in long lines like we saw in our primaries, when mail-in ballots are not being mailed in the middle of a pandemic … these are voter suppression tactics," she said.
The fight against voter suppression is something Williams says she takes seriously and protested against following the 2018 gubernatorial election battle between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams. During that election protests erupted with demonstrators chanting "count every vote" and calling for uncounted ballots to be counted. Several protesters were arrested then, including Williams.
"The week after the election, and as a sitting state senator, I went down to the capitol thinking that I could help to defuse the situation and make sure that some of my constituents were OK. And I stood firmly with my constituents and their right to be there and make their voices heard and exercise their First Amendment right. And capitol police put me and zip ties and booked me in jail," Williams said.
Protecting everyone's voice whether it be in the ability to protest or to vote is why she said she ran for Congress.
"I know that my voice is needed in Congress. I know that there's still work to be done to live up to John Lewis' legacy and continue fighting for voting rights, fighting for fair and free elections. And I'm looking forward to get into Congress and getting to work on that," she said.
Williams will officially be sworn into office on Jan. 18.
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