WASHINGTON – John Lewis made his final trip Monday to the Capitol, where lawmakers paid tribute to the late congressman and delivered a standing ovation when a recording of his booming voice – a clarion call for racial justice – echoed through the Rotunda.
Lewis, D-Ga., who died of cancer July 17 at age 80, will lie in state for two days at the Capitol, where the nation has honored past presidents, lawmakers and other distinguished citizens.
“It is fitting that John Lewis joins this pantheon of patriots, resting upon the same catafalque as President Abraham Lincoln,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at the memorial event, which was marked by speeches, an emotional rendering of “Amazing Grace” and tears.
“We knew that he always worked on the side of the angels – and now, we know that he is with them,” she said of Lewis, adding that he always “understood the power of young people to change the future.”
Lewis’s voice – urging young graduates to “get in the way” and find a way to get in “good trouble, necessary trouble” – filled the Rotunda as a recording of his 2014 speech at Emory University’s commencement ceremony was played. Afterward, Pelosi summoned all those present to stand and applaud.
Members of the House and Senate – most masked because of the coronavirus pandemic – Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and congressional aides quietly streamed past the flag-draped casket, which was moved to the top of the East Front steps Monday evening for the public to pay tribute.
Vice President Mike Pence, a former House colleague of Lewis’s, paid his respects, accompanied by his wife, Karen, as did presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, the former vice president and Delaware senator. He and his wife, Jill Biden, paused with hands over their hearts and placed their hands on the casket.
President Donald Trump, whom Lewis publicly clashed with and declared “illegitimate,” told reporters outside the White House on Monday that he would not be attending the memorial events.
The son of sharecroppers, Lewis fought for civil rights, nearly dying at the age of 25 when he led about 600 protesters in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. State troopers beat the demonstrators, and Lewis suffered a cracked skull on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
Within months, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, meant to end the obstacles preventing black people from voting.
The tributes at the Capitol came shortly after Lewis’s body made its last visit to Washington’s civil rights landmarks midday Monday, pausing at the Lincoln Memorial, where he was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. The motorcade also stopped at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, and the newly minted Black Lives Matter Plaza outside the White House, where he made his last public appearance in early June.
More than two dozen people lined the King memorial awaiting the motorcade. Among them was Jackie Smith, 63, who had left home in Raleigh, N.C., at 5:30 a.m. to pay his respects to Lewis.
“He meant a lot to me as an African American,” Smith said, describing Lewis as his role model. “He was someone who, as he said, got into ‘good trouble,’ and a person who believed you could get a lot done without violence.”
Many brought their children. Stephanie Cornish, 42, said she rented the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble” so her 12-year-old daughter would understand the gravity of his loss and legacy before traveling to the memorial from Bowie, Md., to see his funeral procession.
Led by a fleet of 16 motorcycles, the hearse slowed to a stop just ahead of the memorial to Lewis’s friend and mentor in the civil rights movement.
Sean Kennedy was welling up.
“I’ve had these emotions since he passed and I kind of internalized them. I felt I just had to be here today without question,” said the 55-year-old from Bethesda, Md.
He rushed to catch up with the hearse for one last look at Lewis. As it carried on toward the Lincoln Memorial, Kennedy said: “I’m so thankful I came. It’s nice to be able to say goodbye.”
Hundreds also gathered at Black Lives Matter Plaza to watch the motorcade pass through one of the city’s newest landmarks. There, Janet Purnell, 65, danced and blew bubbles at the center of the plaza, feet from where Lewis stood during his final public appearance last month.
Purnell, who has lived in the District of Columbia for more than 34 years, said what she admired most about Lewis was that he fought tirelessly for others until his death. The reason she attended Monday’s procession, she said, was simple.
“I just had to be here to honor this human being,” she said. “I wanted to be in his presence one last time.”
As the crowds swelled into the afternoon, a speaker system blared audio of Lewis’s 1963 speech at the March on Washington. When his motorcade arrived and paused at the center of the plaza, some raised their fists and others put their hands on their hearts – but most stopped and stared.
Among those who watched in amazement was Mariel Collazo Schwietert, 10, who traveled with her family from New York to see the procession.
“We’re still fighting over rights that we should’ve seen solved a long time ago,” she said. “I don’t know why we’re still doing this now.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, also stopped at the plaza to pay tribute – telling reporters after the procession that she had a chance to talk to Lewis’s family and relay how much he meant to the city.
Bowser said a fitting way to honor Lewis’s life would be for Congress to restore protections of the Voting Rights Act through a bill the House passed in December.
In the days since Lewis’s death, there have been renewed calls for Congress to act on voting rights. In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a crucial component of the 1965 law, ruling that Congress had not taken into account the nation’s racial progress when citing certain states for federal oversight. The House passed legislation in December to restore those protections, but the bill has languished in the GOP-led Senate.
“An honor to his life would be that the Senate pass the voting rights act that they’re sitting on,” Bowser said. “I agree with so many who said getting the Voting Rights Act restored is a fitting, fitting tribute to John Lewis.”
Ahead of the memorial service, the House unanimously approved a measure renaming H.R. 4, the voting rights bill, after Lewis.
Lewis is the second black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol, after his close friend Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who died in October, lay in state in National Statuary Hall.
About 110 to 120 seats were spaced out in the cavernous Rotunda, about a third or less than would normally be on hand for an arrival ceremony. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, seated in the southern half of the room, occupied about half the allotted space. Many caucus members were wearing black masks with white lettering reading “Good Trouble” in honor of Lewis’s personal motto.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., led members of the GOP in honoring Lewis, a group that included House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.
Potential Biden vice presidents Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Reps. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Val Demings, D-Fla., also were on hand.
McConnell recalled hearing Lewis speak at the March on Washington more than 50 years ago and said Lewis “lived and worked with urgency because the task was urgent.”
“But even though the world around him gave him every cause for bitterness, he stubbornly treated everyone with respect and love,” McConnell said.
When the ceremony ended, the House and Senate sergeants at arms coordinated a receiving line in which VIPs could pay their final respects to Lewis, beginning with his son – John-Miles Lewis – standing before his father’s casket. The rest of the Lewis family, accompanied by his longtime chief of staff, Michael Collins, then circled the casket and said goodbye.
The public has been prohibited from entering the buildings of the Capitol complex since mid-March because of the pandemic, so Lewis’s coffin was positioned at the top of the center steps of the Capitol, just outside the Rotunda, Monday evening. The public was able to walk up to the bottom of those steps, with social distancing and mask-wearing requirements. Lewis is scheduled to be flown to Atlanta to lie in state Wednesday in the Georgia Capitol ahead of a funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the historically black church where King preached.