John Sweet (Like Sugar)

Legendary attorney mentored young public officials
The Honorable John Sweet

The super city councilman nurtured young public officials and fought the powers that be.

My comrade, mentor, friend and unconditional supporter you have gone home. Not the earthly home, but a place where you will find eternal refuge from Parkinson’s and troubles of this old world. John, sweet like sugar, the red diaper warrior who always fought the right fights whether for constituents opposing neighborhood dividing highways, uncompensated and disabled workers whose rights had been trampled by unscrupulous bosses, or environmentalists trying to save our earth. You showed up big time and often came pro bono.

You helped me/us discover a new world of electoral politics. Before then we thought political participation was shouting in the faces of racist chancellors who did not want us in flagship institutions of lower learning. I thought it was writing and reciting revolutionary poetry to the African beats of Bolaji, King Farouk, and Kole at Herndon Homes and Washington Park. I thought it was fusing spoken word with the funky Jazz of Ojeda Penn and Dawn’s Early Light (later known as Brick) at Marko’s and a hot new junior college on the south side of the city.

We set out to save the world with the zeal of Amiri Baraka and the Last Poets of Harlem. You tapped to the beat of the congas and lost yourself in the polyrhythms of music that fed your soul. What we were doing back then was all good to you, but you and Maynard taught us that throwing stones from the back lawn was not the same as making public policy inside the big house. You passed on to us the key even though you had just arrived.

You knew how to fuse grassroots activism with legislating progressive change. And when the city council would not heed your warnings, you preached to the lights in the old council chambers. You were arrogant, eloquent, righteous, and strident—all for the good of a silent majority who thought they had no tongues. You spoke, blessed, lifted, and inspired them—the least of these, our brothers and sisters.

Some didn’t understand why you left a safe district council seat to take on a career politician who you knew so well up-close. You understood there were two ways to bring about meaningful change. One is to offer yourself for public service; the other is to eliminate deadweight before it rots and takes you under. You, Midge, and the bi-racial coalition you stitched together almost pulled it off.

John Sweet (like sugar)

What I remember most are the private moments when you mentored me on how to be a good public official: Always publish your calendar so your constituents know the work you’ve been doing in their behalf. Send out regular newsletters so each community in your district can monitor your progress. These are things we take for granted now but 30 years ago, the idea of elected officials specializing in serving citizens and communicating routinely with them was not common at all.

You brought early innovations to campaigning like targeting, smart marketing and disciplined fundraising. I remember you saying, “I will never send a candidate into a campaign without the financial resources to win.” And you kept your word, sending us Jim, Benny, Ruth, and seasoned activists from Inman Park steeled from battling the presidential parkway.

You had foresight into where this city was heading. No doubt you knew when you left your district seat it would be filled by a young person of color. Bill Campbell was not only smart like you, but he was ambitious, skilled and savvy enough to leverage the 2nd district council seat into the seat of the mayor. No other district council person had done that in decades. You cleared a path so it could happen.

You never sought the spotlight but discovered others like Mary Margaret, Lee, Nan, Starnes, me, and many others and pulled us from the shadows into the light. All you asked was that we be honest and always work for the public good. There is an African saying befitting now: It’s alright to forget the good things you’ve done for others; it is unforgivable to forget the good things others have done for you. Thank you, John Sweet for all you’ve given and done for us. Rest in Peace, sweet brother.

13 thoughts on “John Sweet (Like Sugar)

  1. Thank you Jabari for remembering John. So many ways and times he stood in solidarity with the marginalized. He was a good friend and ally and our son, Sam’s first soccer coach. RIP John Sweet

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A great tribute to a wonderful man. I first met him when I was a legal aid lawyer, came up against him when I later represented workers comp employers and finally in court as he pressed for social justice. He was always on the right side and would gently remind me when he thought I wasn’t. He will be truly missed.

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  3. Jabari, this tribute to John is a masterpiece. You cover so beautifully every facet of the decent, passionate man I came to admire, respect & counsel as the City Attorney during his entire time on the Council. After John’s reading this I can imagine him now, trying to remain self-effacing, while approvingly smiling that beautiful smile of his that could disarm even the most hardened opponent. John was a good man who put me through my paces, but taught me much about being a counselor-at-law. You fought the good fight for all you believed in, so may you Rest in Peace, dear brother John.

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  4. John Sweet saved my Mother when she was hurt at the job at Wellstar Health Systems. No one listened to her, and no one took her case. She was in pain and was going to lose her job.

    Enter John Sweet: He was lovely, kind and generous to her and ruthless with Wellstar. They not only treated her with the physician of her choice, but they paid her retroactively and were forced to keep her employed. She retired from there is completely healed.

    John Sweet helped our family have hope. We will always be grateful for knowing this special soul.

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  5. Of course: Sweet like sugar! John Sweet. Call me John.

    Thank you for these memories, reminding us how things were and how happily, determinedly, fearlessly, intelligently John and you and others took on rotten wood and vicious racist systems. I was amazed at his radicalness and in awe of him as a capable insightful team player, as you noted, willing to work from within and take no credit as the goal got reached (yes soccer goals too!).

    You captured John’s commitment and generosity, and his sweetness, intent on championing women, LGBTQ rights, injured workers, marginalized people, comfortable with all people, relishing the guys next door at the homeless shelter as much as his friends, adoring Maynard and willing to stand up to that icon and debate him and tell him he was wrong to increase the sales tax that would hurt everyday folk.

    I deeply appreciate you bringing to light battles forgotten but important. We can fight and love and make things better together, with kindness and intelligence.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is just beautiful. We loved John Sweet and he was sweet like sugar. He gave our daughter Naje her first soccer ball. She couldn’t walk. He told us to put it in her crib and she would move it around with her feet and we should get her playing soccer. First of all we had never thought about her playing soccer. We are a tennis family. And putting a ball in a baby’s crib was one of the strangest things I had ever heard as a way to develop her soccer skills. Of course we went right home and put that ball in her crib. Needless to say, her first sport was soccer and she became a phenomenal kicker.

    John was a developer of raw talent–political servants, social activists, and soccer babies in cribs. Thank you John.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for sharing this.

    On Wed, May 27, 2020 at 10:51 AM Jabari Simama Speaks wrote:

    > Jabari Simama posted: ” The Honorable John Sweet The super city councilman > nurtured young public officials and fought the powers that be. My comrade, > mentor, friend and unconditional supporter you have gone home. Not the > earthly home, but a place where you will find etern” >

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  8. Oh Jabari, you captured John’s essence in this beautiful tribute. Thank you thank you. John was a singular person and will be forever missed and loved by oh so many whose lives he touched and changed. I am fortunate and blessed to have been among them. “We who believe in freedom shall not rest until it comes.” A favorite song of John’s, by Bernice Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock, says so much. John is at rest and new generations step forward. RIP dear sweet John.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you so much for this tribute to John. I am grateful to you for capturing some of the details of his eclectic history of activism and public service.

    One thing your piece brought to mind was the duality of his political identity. He was steeped in the rhetoric and ideology of radicalism, and proudly wore his revolutionary stripes on his sleeve, but in practice he was a pragmatist, focused on making positive incremental change at any scale. John was idealistic, but understood that for every utopian goal, there was a mountain of institutional minutia that stood in the way of reform, which had to be removed one scoop at a time.

    I appreciated your mention of his failed citywide campaign. You are 100% correct about his intentions. The citywide race was a gambit to help Maynard expand the progressive coalition on the council. He knew his district seat would be filled by a progressive and he never regretted the choice to run citywide, even though it felt short. He was gregarious and confident, but his participation in politics was not ego-driven. He cared more about progress than he cared about being the center of attention.

    I once asked him if he cared about someone else being the president of an organization he had founded. (I was a kid, and to me that seemed like a rip-off.) He said “Hell no. That’s how you keep organizations alive – get new people involved and give them the power as quickly as possible.” Any time somewhere expressed any interested in getting involved, he immediately thought of a way to harness their energy. An errant comment around John could accidentally launch a political career.

    I also appreciated your mention of the mentoring he gave to rising politicians. He always wanted to help develop new leaders and deliberately sought to elevate the ambitions of women and African Americans – not only out of a sense of social justice, but also a tactically understanding that it would create more durable community engagement.

    It has been very sad to let go, but heartening to see the reactions of people who were influenced by him in one way or another. He loved people, loved the city, loved talking shop and talking shit, and was relentlessly optimistic. Now is an interesting moment in history to reflect on his life’s work; I’m sure he would have been sanguine about the change in the air, and eager to plot how to bring it about.

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  10. Eli
    Thank you for your comments and expanding on some of my reflections. You were so young during his citywide race or were you even born? I appreciate your taking time to write. I can’t imagine what is like having a Dad like John. My kids always say Nisha and I place pressure on them just being who we are. If this is partially true, i.e. high achieving parents set enormously high expectations for kids, then you’re in trouble buddy. All seriousness, thanks for sharing your dad (and Mom) with us. John truly lived life abundantly.

    Much affection and admiration,
    Jabari

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