Rep. John Lewis’ determined spirit celebrated at Capitol ahead of funeral

A military honor guard places the casket of the late Rep. John Lewis in the state Capitol Rotunda Wednesday. The governor, state lawmakers, Atlanta's mayor and many admirers paid tribute to the longtime congressman. John Bazemore/AP pool photo

Mourners gathered for a memorial at the Georgia Capitol Wednesday to pay tribute to civil rights icon and longtime Rep. John Lewis ahead of his funeral and burial in his adopted hometown of Atlanta.

Officials remembered the venerable U.S. congressman Wednesday for his courage to lead the lunch counter sit-ins during the 1960s and a constant champion for people in need during his three decades in public office.

Wednesday’s ceremony allowed the public to pay respects as his American flag-draped casket rested at the center of the Georgia Capitol Rotunda.The invitation-only funeral is scheduled to take place today in the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Lewis’s mentor Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. Multiple reports late Wednesday said former President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush will attend the service, as will former President Barack Obama, who is expected to speak.

As a teenager he helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and as a 17-term member of congress Lewis remained committed to a philosophy of nonviolent activism.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told hundreds of masked guests she was inspired by Lewis since childhood. Her mother was a hairdresser for Lewis’s late wife Lillian.

Bottoms’ aunt also helped Lewis organize lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s throughout the segregated South. 

The first-term mayor said the advice from Lewis that people should start “good trouble” guides the way she governs today. 

“Like so many, I have a deep and abiding admiration for congressman Lewis, and I’ve had it my entire life,” Bottoms said during Wednesday’s memorial at the Capitol. “Although an Alabama legend, an Atlanta icon and an American hero, congressman Lewis took the time to let me know, to tell us that we matter to him.”

Lewis died after a battle with cancer on July 17, the same day as the death of his friend and fellow civil rights giant C.T. Vivian, two of the prominent “Big Six”leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington.

Arrival befitting an icon

A military jet carrying Lewis’ casket arrived at Dobbins Air Reserve Base at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, about 20 minutes after a chartered Delta Air Lines flight carrying his family landed there.

About 1 p.m. the procession left the base and about a half hour later the Willie Watkins Funeral Home hearse carrying his body paused at the rainbow crosswalk at 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue as a reminder of the congressman’s dedication to equality and civil rights for all.

 As he passed through the intersection that’s the epicenter for the annual Atlanta Pride celebration, the crowd burst into applause and a chorus of “We shall overcome” broke out.

The Willie Watkins Funeral Home hearse carrying the body of John Lewis paused at the rainbow crosswalk in Midtown Atlanta on its way to the memorial service at the Georgia Capitol. Lewis was a champion of equality for all. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Other markers on the way to the memorial at the Capitol included the John Lewis Mural on Auburn Avenue, John Lewis Freedom Parkway and the home where Martin Luther King Jr. was born. The hearse arrived at the Georgia Capitol shortly before 2 p.m., where Bottoms joined Gov. Brian Kemp, and state legislators Rep. Calvin Smyre and Rep. Karen Bennett in offering remarks during a private ceremony honoring Lewis’ legacy.

It was the fifth day of admirers celebrating Lewis’ life with ceremonies in his native Alabama and Washington, D.C. In Selma, Alabama a caisson carried his casket across the Edmund Pettus Bridge where he endured beatings from state troopers in 1965 as he demonstrated for voting rights.

A day earlier, Lewis became the second Black lawmaker to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol, an honor granted to only a few dozen statesmen in U.S. history. Rep. Elijah Cumming, a Maryland Democrat and Lewis’ longtime colleague, was given the honor after he died last October.

Atlanta resident Shannon Byrne visited Selma in March for the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and she spoke a familiar language at Wednesday’s public viewing.

“He’s inspired me for such a long time and I try very often to get in the way and use my powers for good and not for evil.

The governor said he admired Lewis’s determined spirit to stand up for what’s right during troubling times and his ability to connect with people.

“At home in the Fifth District, this legendary freedom fighter was a friendly neighborhood face, serving his constituents selflessly and with open arms,” Kemp said. “In our country’s most trying moments, congressman Lewis taught us the lesson of joyful, steadfast commitment to ideals bigger than one man or one movement.”

Georgia state Rep. Calvin Smyre, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife Marty Kemp, (right to left), walk ahead of the casket of Rep. John Lewis at the Georgia Capitol Wednesday. The governor offered admiration for Lewis’ determined spirit to stand up for what’s right during troubling times. John Bazemore/AP Pool

Smyre, the honorary dean of the Georgia House of Representatives, said Lewis set an example by being willing to lose his life for the right to freedom. 

That resolve helped deliver the 1965 Voting Rights Act after TV news showed America Lewis and other protesters being beaten by Alabama law enforcement on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

“That propelled and opened the way for African Americans to seek public office and bring any change to creating good public policy which determines our quality of life,” said Smyre, who in 1987 became the state’s first African American floor leader since Reconstruction.

Lewis’ influence endures with a younger generation of rising elected officials from Georgia who credit him for how they live out their political aspirations.

Democratic Party Chair and state Sen. Nikema Williams was tapped by the party earlier this month to appear on the November ballot to represent the same Atlanta district as her mentor Lewis.  

“My entire political life, I have considered myself a student of the John Lewis school of politics,” Williams said after being nominated last week. “I studied congressman Lewis’ work closely and practiced the art of getting into good trouble.”

Rep. William Boddie, 43, said his friendship with Lewis grew as the elder lawmaker shared advice throughout his developing political career. 

He said it’ll be tough for anyone to match the power of the grassroots activism and the scale of the worldwide impact of Lewis.

“He always said to make sure that you do the absolute most to take care of the least,” Boddie said.

 

 

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.