Civil Rights icon and US Congressman John Lewis died on July 17 at 80. A native of Troy, Alabama, his private funeral was hosted at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton attended the memorial service. Former President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy. Lewis was buried next to his wife, Lillian, who passed away in 2012.
Across the bridge once more
On Sunday, U.S. Congressman John Lewis made his way across the Edmund Pettus Bridge for a final time. Just a handful of minutes behind schedule, those patiently waiting were treated to the ringing out of a persistent train horn, which intermittently interrupted the almost operatic shrill of cicadas in the orchestra that is nature. That is how Lewis, whose dearest pet in childhood was a baby chicken, would have liked it. All too soon, he appeared at the foot of the Selma, Alabama bridge, his courage in the face of white supremacy made famous. The rumble of four carriage wheels and twice as many horseshoes, was little more than a molehill for the shouts that sought to drown them out, as if they could awake once more, the man who now sleeps forever. Not even a pandemic could keep mourners away, some of whom likely traveled from across the nation, many donning “good trouble” shirts, to pay final tribute to Alabama’s most courageous son.
Led by two black horses, his flagdraped casket, stood out brightly against the bright blue sky, and the lush green of trees which lined the asphalt bridge where a young Lewis was once blooded, but unbowed. The “little blood” Lewis causally would say he gave on that bridge, those many years ago, was replaced by the lot of red rose petals. Eventually joined by a handful of Lewis’s immediate family, the cortège’s slow trek was intermittently stopped by its black carriage driver, who proudly rose from his seat to stand in salute. With a top hat held high to his breast, the tradition connected him—and through him, all of us—to free and enslaved black hack drivers of yesteryears long ago.
“Stand there. Stand there boy,” directed the driver to his laboring horses once on the foot of the bridge on the other side. Alabama State Troopers, like the Bloody Sunday of 1965, met Lewis once more. This time there were no billy clubs, no water hoses or no dogs. Does that mean things have changed? Of course. But so bloody is the stain of white supremacy that Lewis’ lifetime of good trouble has not, even on the second Sunday following his death, yet compelled the state and citizenry of Alabama to dump the name of its white supremacist “Grand Dragon” of the Ku Klux Klan bridge namesake into the depths of the river it crosses over. Until it does, and even if it does, Alabama—and America too—haven’t changed enough.
Changes must echo from US Capitol
The excitement was as palpable as the temperature was high in Washington, D.C. on Monday. Representative John Lewis, who had been a fixture in his adopted state of Georgia and its black capital, Atlanta, was just as home in D.C. where he represented Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his recent death. After the high-rival of tributes to Lewis in his home state of Alabama and in Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in particular, Washingtonians were ready for their moment in the final chapter of Lewis’ marvelous book of life.
Awaiting the arrival of his remains, it was clear that a black hearse had assumed the role formerly occupied by a black horsedrawn carriage. The stripes of Lewis’s casket were in clear view from the hearse, it’s safe passage assured by motorcycle accompanied motorcade. Looking on, all across the winding route across the nation’s capital, D.C. natives, transplants, and tourists were joined in joy and in sorrow. Its stop at the newly-christened Black Lives Matter Plaza was among the most poignant and symbolic in Lewis’s placement at the crossroads of America. In those 33 years, a stealthy Lewis had moved across the streets of the capital, as a connector between America’s segregated past, improved present, and uncertain future. Even in death, he was doing it once again.
The military honor guard met the black hearse at the foot of the Capitol. With unbelievable stillness, they waited there to carry Lewis who for so long carried the weight of the nation whose traditions and loftiest hopes on his literal shoulders. It was hot, so hot that a waiting U.S. Navy serviceman fainted, literally falling to his feet while waiting to fulfill the final watch for Lewis. Rising to his feet of his own will, the momentary added drama was yet another symbol of Lewis’s life and work.
The serviceman rebounded as did Lewis’s hope for a poor perfect nation whose president golfed while the world stopped to pay tribute to ”the boy from Clay” who had sought again and again to make America as great as it could and should have always been. By the time those gathered outside or around watching across the country and world on devices heard the ready step command, the forward march of the guard, whose rhythmic march chants were almost reminiscent of the freedom songs Lewis first sung the yesteryears of his college youth on the frontlines of the Nashville Student Sit-in Movement, had already begun to carry him up the Capitol’s many steps. Into the Rotunda, they appeared.
Resting, for a final time, Lewis’s amid a circular gathering of colleagues—both enemies of his causes, and lifelong friends—who represent the sea on which he hoped to sail the nation to brighter horizons. Resting upon the same catafalque as President Abraham Lincoln, John Lewis, noted Speaker Nanci Pelosi, joined a small, overwhelmingly white and male “pantheon of patriots” as a black man laying in the center of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. She and Senate Majority Leader both claimed they were at the 1963 March On Washington which made Lewis famous. Nobody cared. We only care about how the cause of freedom marches on. Amazing grace had led Lewis through many dangers, toils, and snares. He was finally well, as was his soul all along.
Inside Georgia’s Statehouse
Wednesday afternoon, the tributes to U.S. Representative and Civil Rights icon John Lewis continued to pour in, this time, at the rotunda inside the Georgia State Capitol. He has lied in repose from 2 P.M. Wednesday through 8 A.M. Thursday. He became the third African-American to receive the prestigious honor. Coretta Scott King and Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian previously received the honor.
As the casket arrived at the rotunda, Gov. Brian P. Kemp, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Lewis family, the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, and hundreds more gathered around for the eulogies.
“Congressman Lewis changed our country in profound and immeasurable ways, and his legacy of passionate service is truly unmatched,” Kemp said. “The son of sharecroppers, John Lewis felt his calling at a young age and devoted every waking moment to the fight for justice, equality, access, and opportunity for all people – no matter their skin color.
“(Lewis) built quite a reputation along the way, and the ‘good trouble’ that led to real change inspired a country and changed the world,” the governor continued. “No matter where you go, everyone knows the name of John Lewis, and more importantly, they know his record of standing up, speaking out, and shaking up the status quo.”
Next, Bottoms offered her eulogy. She recited poetry from Langston Hughes, recalled stories from her late aunt who was beaten and placed in prison alongside Lewis.
As she delivered her riveting eulogy, she pivoted to Kemp’s earlier references to Lewis’s penchant for causing “good trouble” and “shaking up the status quo.”
“Until his last days, he was calling upon America to be America again in his words and his deeds,” Bottoms said.
She also said Lewis had been watching Atlanta leadership and was proud of how she was handling the COVID-19 crisis, peaceful protests and racial unrest.
“And so, governor, when the ‘good trouble’ continues, know that it is with the blessings of Congressman Lewis,” Bottoms said to applause. “Although the fight for liberty and equality continues, Congressman Lewis reminded us to be hopeful, optimistic, and to never lose a sense of hope.”
As the private ceremony ended inside the capitol, thousands of people waited in the searing heat, and in the midst of a pandemic and public health crisis, Atlantans would not allow those factors to prevent them from saying goodbye to Lewis for the last time.
Chairwoman of the Interstate Cooperation Committee, State Senator Donzella James, D-Douglasville, said it was a tough time for her because she worked with the late Julian Bond and got to know John Lewis when he ran for Atlanta City Council.
“When he went on to Congress, he still listened to us and cared,” James exclaimed. “He was a true lieutenant for Martin Luther King, and he really took it seriously. Some say they are a public servant, but he was a public servant. I am going to miss him enormously, but he left so many great memories and a legacy we can stand on and build on.”
Epilogue – The Funeral
Former President Bill Clinton, former President George W. Bush, and former President Barack Obama paid their respects to Lewis at Ebenezer Baptist Church. The 39th President, Jimmy Carter, was too frail to travel, however, he delivered his remarks to the officiant and senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist, The Reverend Raphael G. Warnock. Meanwhile, Obama delivered a eulogy chronicling Lewis’s fight for equality and voting rights while firing a rebuke to sitting President Donald J. Trump’s assertion suggesting he would delay the election.
“Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” Obama said. “George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot, but even as we sit here there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting.”
George W. Bush revered Lewis even though they often clashed on policies. However, he talked about how they were able to come together on issues, namely, the extension of the Voting Rights Act. Without mentioning President Trump by name, Bush touted his ability to maintain key relationships.
“In the America John Lewis fought for, and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable and evidence of democracy in action. We the people, including congressmen and presidents, can have differing views on how to protect our union, while sharing the conviction that our nation, however flawed, is at heart a good and noble one,” Bush said, eliciting applause.
Clinton referenced his first meeting with Lewis in the 1970s after he ceded defeat to Stokely Carmichael in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. On the morning of his funeral, the New York Times printed an essay by Lewis, Clinton said, “he received his marching orders” after reading the essay.
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war,” he wrote. “So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”