The presumed replacement for Rep. John Lewis's congressional seat is ready to carry his torch: “He paved the way and showed me the way.”

By Shalayne Pulia
Oct 21, 2020 @ 9:30 am
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Nikema Williams
| Credit: Courtesy

In our Reasons for Hope in America series, we spotlight thought leaders who are rewriting the rules for a brighter future.

State Senator Nikema Williams is taking a well-deserved break as she answers a Zoom call from a rocking chair on the front porch of her Atlanta home. As the presumed replacement for Rep. John Lewis’s congressional seat, she has been on the go since the civil-rights icon passed away in July. After quickly applying to fill her mentor’s shoes, she secured the nomination, which, she admits, is still bittersweet. “Nobody could replace John Lewis,” says Williams, who has been splitting her time between campaigning and homeschooling her 5-year-old son. But she is intent on continuing Lewis’s legacy: “He paved the way and showed me the way.”

With John Lewis in 2017
| Credit: Courtesy

As a young girl growing up on a farm in small-town Alabama, Williams, 42, was drawn to the big city soon after graduating from Talladega College in 2000. “Atlanta was a place where Black people came to grow, prosper, and live out their dreams,” she says. Her political aspirations started to materialize while she was working for the Young Democrats of Georgia, the state’s youth arm of the party, which is also when she met Lewis. By 2008, she was advocating for women’s rights as a legislative coordinator and regional public policy manager for Planned Parenthood of Georgia. “That [experience] ingrained in me how every issue is interconnected,” she says. “I can’t separate my uterus from Blackness, from my Southernness, from all the other things that make me Nikema.” In 2017 she became a Georgia state senator. Then, the next year, she got into what Lewis liked to call good trouble when she was arrested for protesting voter suppression during the midterm elections. “You don’t always plan good trouble,” she says, smiling. “Sometimes it chooses you.” Finally, in 2019 she was officially elected Georgia’s first Black female chair of the Democratic Party.

Getting into “good trouble” in Georgia in 2018.
| Credit: Courtesy

Creating meaningful change is a personal mission for Williams, especially in the face of continued social unrest. “I’m raising a Black boy who I know someday is not just going to be my cute little Carter with dimples,” she says. “Someone will see him as a threat. I have to get this right because my baby’s future depends on it too.” Williams, like Lewis before her, remains optimistic when she looks to the next generation. “Young people are lifting their voices,” she says. “I am hopeful that elected officials are going to start listening. I am. I just need more people to join me so we can make sure our policy is matching the protests in the streets and we are giving people a reason to believe in the promise of this country.”

For more stories like this, pick up the November 2020 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Oct. 23rd.