In Memoriam: A Celebration of John Lewis’ Life

Representative John Lewis is the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, one of the highest American honors. People looking to pay their respects can visit his coffin on Monday and Tuesday.

Photo by Lawrence Jackson

Representative John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia and a civil rights icon, will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, making him the first Black lawmaker to receive this honour. 

Though the Capitol is closed due to the pandemic, on Monday afternoon, congressional lawmakers will attend an invitation-only ceremony to pay tribute to Lewis. Afterwards, Lewis’ coffin will move outside, where members of the public — adhering to safety precautions by wearing masks and social distancing — can gather and pay their respects on Monday evening and all day Tuesday.

The ceremony in the Capitol is one of the many events planned to honor and commemorate the late congressman. On Sunday, a short ceremony occurred outside of Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama. 

Lewis then made his final journey across Edmund Pettus bridge in a horse-drawn caisson as people lined the streets to pay tribute. Fifty-five years ago, Lewis helped lead a march for voting rights that would come to define his legacy. As Lewis and the protestors crossed the bridge, they faced beatings and violence from heavily-armed state and local police. 

On Sunday, in a moment of poetic justice, Alabama state police accompanied and protected Lewis’s coffin. Rose petals scattered across the bridge, symbolizing the blood shed of years past. 

Following the events in Washington, DC, Lewis will lie in state in the Georgia State Capitol on Wednesday. Afterwards, there will be a “celebration of life” at Ebenezer Baptist Church Horizon Sanctuary, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was baptized and ordained, in Atlanta, followed by interment at South-View Cemetery.

Despite the difficulties posed by the pandemic, members of the America public convened at these events to pay their respects to the civil rights icon. Lewis’s family also encourages people to organize “John Lewis Virtual Love Events," where they can watch the ceremonies at home via livestream.

On Monday, the House approved a proposal to rename a Voting Rights Act legislation after the late congressman. The new legislation will target voter suppression by giving federal agencies oversight power of certain states and local jurisdictions.

By unanimous consent, the lower chamber passed the proposal to rename H.R. 4 the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. 

Good trouble

John Lewis was a man so greatly renowned and celebrated for his determination and conviction that at times, it seemed impossible to separate his personhood from the history-making civil rights era. His death — at the dawn of another era for racial equality and justice — is a call to many to protect voting rights and keep fighting oppression.

Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, on a sharecropping farm owned by a white man in rural Alabama. He grew up hearing about lynchings of Black men and women, people who looked like him, which was at that time still commonplace in his hometown. 

The dark realities of segregation instilled in Lewis a strong desire to pursue justice and to end Jim Crow laws. His early ambitions of being a preacher, nourished by the teachings of his church and the radio sermon of Martin Luther King, Jr., led him to Nashville, where he studied theology and practiced nonviolent resistance.

In Nashville, Lewis mingled with civil rights activists who staged famous sit-ins, Freedom Rides (demonstrations on interstate buses to challenge segregation) and voter registration campaigns. Lewis’s first arrest came as he turned 20, when he and other Black students demanded service and defied the whites-only policies at lunch counters. Lewis became the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, an influential force in the civil rights movement.

His efforts paid off. After three months of well publicized sit-ins and protests, Nashville gave into activists’ demands and became the first major Southern city to begin desegregating public facilities.

To his family, however, Lewis’ arrest brought shame. They raised him to accept the conditions he grew up in; when a young Lewis asked his parents about a “Colored Only” sign, they replied “that’s the way it is, don’t get in trouble.”

Over Lewis’s decades-long career as an activist, he would ignore his parents’ advice. Lewis got into trouble often, but it was always necessary. This necessary trouble carved a path to more liberties and more freedoms. It was “good trouble” — a motto he adopted for life, and also the name of a recent documentary about his life 

Wake up, America. Wake up!

After Lewis graduated from the seminary in 1961, he joined a Freedom Ride that ended in bloodshed and violence. He and other activists were beaten bloody when they entered a whites-only waiting room at the bus station in South Carolina, and beaten yet again when they were jailed in Alabama. Through it all, Lewis remained committed to nonviolent resistance.

In August 1963, Lewis was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington to advocate for the civil and economic rights of African-Americans. Though many may remember the march for Dr. King’s infamous “I Have a Dream” speech, Lewis delivered remarks that were equally powerful. 

“By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers,” he told the crowd, “we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: ‘Wake up, America. Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”

On March 7, 1965, Lewis led what is perhaps the most famous march in American history; the march from Selma to Montgomery, a gathering of people who demanded voting rights, is also remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis fronted the crowd of 600 people, and as they approached the end Edmund Pettus bridge leaving Selma, they were met with 150 Alabama state troopers and local police officers.

The troopers and police ordered protesters to disband; they gave a two-minute warning. However, with Lewis in charge, protesters stood their ground. A minute and five seconds later, troops and police unleashed tear gas and bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. One trooper hit Lewis in the head with a club and cracked his skull.

Televised images of the march and the violent beatings of protesters provoked people across the nation to call for change. The events of the march led to the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law on August 6. Lewis’s act of good trouble almost cost him his life, but it afforded him and millions of African-Americans access to the ballot.

Lewis ran for public office and was elected into Congress in 1986 to represent Georgia. Like he did all throughout his youth, Lewis fought for justice. Those he worked with called him the “conscience of the Congress” and turned to him in moments when it seemed as if America had taken steps backwards. They knew Lewis would keep them moving forward.

When protests erupted across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Lewis appeared on “CBS This Morning” and encouraged those demanding equality. When he watched the viral video of Floyd’s murder, he cried. “People now understand what the struggle was all about,” he said. “It’s another step down a very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”

On the topic of the Black Lives Matter movement, he said, “this feels and looks so different… It is so much more massive and all inclusive.” He added, “there will be no turning back.”

 


 

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