ATLANTA — A motorcade Wednesday led John Lewis on one final tour of Atlanta, the city he represented in Congress for more than three decades and a place he helped establish as the spiritual home of a nonviolent movement to protest racism.
But on this ultimate journey, the hearse carrying the body of the congressman and civil rights leader traversed a city that in recent weeks has been racked by turmoil. It drove down streets where scores of demonstrators have marched this summer to protest police violence, including the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man who was killed by a white police officer last month.
Lewis’ death July 17 came amid a moment of unrest across America, with the nation again wrestling with its troubled racial history. And in the days since, at memorial events in Alabama and Washington, one person after the next has invoked Lewis’ credo of getting into “good trouble.” As a young man — and for the rest of his life — he defined it as a moral call to rebel through nonviolent means against injustices, even if the consequences were perilous.
The conversations about Lewis’ legacy, with some of his colleagues calling him the “conscience of Congress,” have pushed many activists and others to consider how his message of nonviolent resistance has endured and evolved for a new generation carrying on the fight.
“It’s easy to go violence on violence,” David Parker, an Army veteran who works for a courier company, said Wednesday as he stood in a long line at the Statehouse to bid Lewis farewell. “The hard part is peace.
“You go the other way,” Parker, 54, said, “you’re going to blow up the country.”
After Lewis’ coffin was situated under the dome of the Georgia Capitol on Wednesday, Gov. Brian Kemp praised Lewis’ achievements during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, describing him as a titan and “a friend to all who sought a better, fairer, more united society.”
“He built quite a reputation along the way,” said Kemp, a Republican, referring to the “good trouble that led to real change, inspired a country and changed this world.”
Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta’s mayor, drew a parallel between the efforts of the 1960s and the present, contending that many of the demonstrators who had taken to the streets in Atlanta and across the country this year had similar intentions as Lewis and his cohort.
“So, governor, when the good trouble continues,” she said, offering a subtle rebuke of Kemp, who had declared an emergency over the unrest in recent weeks, “know that it is with the blessings of Congressman Lewis.”
The body of Lewis arrived in Atlanta on Wednesday, on a sweltering afternoon, the final leg of a journey that followed the trajectory of his life.
It started Saturday in Alabama, with stops in Troy, a city near the cotton farm where he was raised, and then Selma, where his body was carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which he and many activists had crossed in March 1965 despite being bombarded with tear gas and state troopers wielding clubs. His body then went to Washington, where he was the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
He will be buried Thursday in Atlanta after a funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the pastoral home of Martin Luther King Jr., and where Lewis was a parishioner. Former President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a eulogy.
Before it arrived at the state Capitol, the hearse paused at an intersection in the midtown neighborhood where crosswalks are painted in rainbow colors, a nod to Lewis’ support of the LGBTQ community, and drove down John Lewis Freedom Parkway, a major thoroughfare named for him in 2018. He was also taken past a 65-foot mural that covers the side of a downtown building, an image of him with a single word: “Hero.”
The tour through the city was a reminder of the impression Lewis had left on Atlanta — and the impression Atlanta had made on him. In some ways, his Atlanta story is a familiar one: a young person who had grown up in humble conditions in the South, drawn by the promise of the big city.
In his case, he moved to Atlanta at 23, becoming chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He served on the City Council and then in Congress for more than 30 years. For many, he was more than a distant or historical figure on a pedestal; he was a working lawmaker who stayed close to his constituency.
“What a loss,” Toni Hackney, a military veteran, said after she saluted Lewis’ coffin. Hackney, who had met him several times, rattled off a list of his attributes: “Down to earth. Loving of all. A man with principles and who held fast to his principles.”During the service at the Capitol, Bottoms recited some of the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again”:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe
“This prophet, our prophet, called upon America to be America again,” Bottoms said. “And so, we gather here today in what was once a stronghold of the Confederacy together because this prophet lived and this prophet named John Lewis loved.”
Outside the Georgia Capitol, a diverse crowd that had come to pay their respects snaked around the building and seemed to constantly replenish itself. The crowd was young and old, in hijabs and ball caps, in formal dress and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan of a new civil rights protest movement that Lewis had wholeheartedly endorsed.
Cedric Williams, 56, a tech worker, spoke of growing up Black in Memphis, Tennessee, and of being scarred, as a young man, by the 1968 assassination of King in his hometown.
Lewis’ consistent preaching of a shared humanity that transcends racial barriers spoke to him, as did his insistence that people, and the nation, were capable of change, just as Williams himself had changed.
“We’re still talking about those same issues,” Williams said, adding that he had been heartened by Lewis’ embrace of the Black Lives Matter effort as the latest chapter in a movement he had helped steer. “We are standing on the shoulders of greatness.”