WASHINGTON (CN) — Marking the first time that the honor has been bestowed on a Black lawmaker, the body of 17-term Georgia Congressman John Lewis arrived Monday to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
A day earlier, Lewis’ casket forded the Alabama River over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was lined with rose petals — meant to represent the blood spilled there in 1965 as state troopers attempted to quash a protest by Lewis and other Black civil rights demonstrators.
Lewis had been one of nearly 600 people in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on that day now remembered as “Bloody Sunday” — a catalyst for the creation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Earlier today, the House passed a measure introduced by South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn that will rename legislation restoring provisions of the Voting Rights Act in honor of Lewis, who died on July 17 at the age of 80 of pancreatic cancer.
Marking 55 years since Lewis stood for the voting rights of Black Americans, Lewis’ body arrived in Washington after lying in repose at the Alabama Capitol. A public funeral for Lewis was already held in the congressman’s hometown of Troy, Alabama, where a horse-drawn carriage carried his body across the bridge in Selma for the last time on Sunday.
Known as the “conscience of Congress,” Lewis was one of the last surviving organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, led by Martin Luther King Jr.
Though Lewis is the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda — an honor usually reserved for U.S. presidents — last year Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings became the first Black lawmaker to be lain in state at Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Lewis’ casket toured Washington after arriving Monday at Andrews Airforce Base, with stops at the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza — where Lewis last appeared publicly in June. As the hearse advanced up 16th Street toward the White House, members of the public bowed their heads and gently patted the hearse carrying Lewis as “Amazing Grace” played softly over speakers.
At the rotunda’s entrance, Lewis’ family and federal leadership watched from the top of the steps as members from every U.S. military branch served as pallbearers and guided the casket inside. Mourners inside formed a circle around the casket, spaced well apart to protect against the coronavirus.
“Here in Congress John was revered and loved on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the Capitol,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, as lawmakers delivered remarks inside the Rotunda. “We knew that he always worked on the side of the angels and now we know that he is with them.”
The Reverend Grainger Browning, leader of Ebenezer AME Church in Washington, Maryland, offered an opening prayer for Lewis, while Wintley Phipps, founder of the U.S. Dream Academy, sang hymns in honor of the congressman. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also offered remarks, recalling having witnessed Lewis speak from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
“John’s friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’” McConnell said. “But that is never automatic. History only bent toward what’s right because people like John paid the price to help bend it.”
Congressman Al Green, a Texas Democrat, told Courthouse News, as he sat in the Capitol’s rotunda, he was reminded of Lewis’ history. The grandson of Alabama sharecroppers, born in the segregated South, no one could have predicted Lewis’ eventual rise to Congress — or even to secondary education. Not only was Lewis the Congress’ conscience, he was the body’s moral compass, Green said.
“He had a true North when it came to righteousness, and there were many people who voted for legislation that passed because they knew that he was supportive — especially on some of the issues of our time that have politically been very difficult to support,” Green said. “He made it to Congress and made a difference in Congress, and he made it possible for others to get to Congress.”
Green said Lewis had left an indelible impression in his life after he was arrested alongside Lewis while protesting a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013. The disturbance was what Lewis called “good trouble,” Green said.
“On the streets of the Capitol we kneeled and he told me, ‘when they come to arrest us,’ he gave instructions, ‘don’t resist, just do whatever they say and then just go on with your day,’” Green said. “You have to be ready to suffer the consequences for your actions. But he stressed — not these words, but this was the essence of it — being disruptive, getting in the way, being disruptive; not destructive.”
Green also shared how in a Washington cell, Lewis spoke to him about advancing civil rights legislation. That fight would continue throughout Lewis’ life on the House floor, Green said.
“Nobody wants to go to jail. But I’ve always felt that if I had to go, it was an honor to be there with the Honorable John Lewis,” Green said. “He took to heart what Gandhi called to our attention when he said, ‘You should be the change you seek.’ He became the sermon he preached. His sermon was love, peace, unity; he was that sermon. … It’s one thing to hear a sermon, and it’s another thing to see a sermon. When you saw him, you saw a sermon, and I think that’s made all the difference in the lives of many. I can assure you it has made a difference in my life.”
Memorial services will continue on Tuesday, as members of the public will be permitted to view the casket from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Then on Wednesday, Lewis will lie in the Georgia state Capitol from 3–7 p.m. A private funeral for Lewis will take place at Ebenezer Baptist Church Horizon Sanctuary in Georgia on Thursday.