WASHINGTON – US lawmakers set aside partisanship on Monday (July 27) to honour the late Georgia Representative John Lewis, a civil rights legend known as “the Conscience of Congress.” Dozens of Lewis’s congressional colleagues attended the invitation-only ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda along with John-Miles Lewis, the late lawmaker’s son, three of his siblings and other family members.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave remarks, and Representative James Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, delivered the benediction. Vice President Mike Pence and former Vice President Joe Biden paid their respects on Monday evening.
“John was revered and beloved on both sides of the aisle,” Pelosi said in her remarks. “We knew that he always worked on the side of the angels and now we know that he is with them.” McConnell, noting that he attended the 1963 civil rights March on Washington that Lewis helped plan, said the late congressman “lived and worked with urgency because the task was urgent.”
“History only bent toward what’s right because of people like John,” McConnell said.
Social distancing was in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, and on-site media coverage of the televised event was limited. Thousands of people are expected to line up later on Monday and throughout Tuesday for an outdoors public viewing of Lewis’s casket at the top of the Capitol’s East Front steps. They will pay their respects under flags flying at half-staff, and a strict requirement to wear masks.
Lewis, who had announced in December that he would begin treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer, was 80 years old when he died on July 17. He was a widower, having survived his wife, Lillian Miles, who died in 2012.
He is the first Black man to lie in state at the Rotunda, a rare designation reserved for US statesmen and military leaders, including 12 presidents.
Two other African Americans had been honoured there after their deaths – civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in 2005 and slain Capitol Police office Jacob Chestnut Jr in 1998. Representative Elijah Cummings, who died in 2019, lay in state in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Lewis is just the 37th person to lie in state or honour in either the Rotunda or Statuary Hall, according to House historian Matthew Wasniewski.
John-Miles Lewis and other family members arrived at the Capital with the casket after a procession through Washington in a motorcade that made stops at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which Lewis called one of his proudest legislative achievements.
Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders, helped organise the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech and the 1965 voting-rights march in Selma, Alabama, where he was severely beaten after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
An apostle of non-violent protest, Lewis became a leading liberal voice during 17 terms in the House representing a district located mostly in Atlanta. In 2011, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour, from President Barack Obama.
Before arriving in Washington on Monday, Lewis had lain in repose in Montgomery, the capital of his native Alabama. His body will be taken to Atlanta on Wednesday, where he will lie in state the Georgia capitol. His funeral and burial are scheduled to take place Thursday in Atlanta.