Week of John Lewis memorials begins with service in Alabama

The former congressman and civil rights icon died on July 17 at the age of 80.

john lewis memorial
A service was held for Congressman John Lewis, a pioneer of the civil rights movement, in Troy, Alabama, near his birthplace [Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters]

A memorial service for former Congressman John Lewis in Troy, Alabama kicked off a week of tributes and services for the civil rights icon that will include lying in state on Monday in the Rotunda of the US Capitol.

Lewis, the senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a man known as the “conscience of the Congress” whose activism was anchored in a belief that “good trouble” could change the world, died of cancer on July 17, aged 80.

On Saturday, members of the public gathered to view Lewis’s body as it lay in state in an arena at Troy University in Alabama, the state of his birth, in a service titled The Boy from Troy, the nickname Reverend Martin Luther King Jr gave Lewis at their first meeting in 1958 in Montgomery.

Lewis was born on a farm outside of Troy, the son of sharecroppers, and attended segregated schools.

In keeping with coronavirus precautions, the number of visitors was limited to 800, physical distancing was enforced, and masks required – a far cry from pre-coronavirus practices when a memorial for an icon like Lewis would have drawn many thousands from across the country.

At the service, his brothers and sisters recalled Lewis – who was called Robert at home – as a boy who practised preaching and singing gospel songs to the farm animals.

“I remember the day that John left home. Mother told him not to get in trouble, not to get in the way … but we all know that John got in trouble, got in the way – but it was good trouble,” his brother Samuel Lewis said.

“And the troubles that he got himself into would change the world,” he added. 

After the ceremony on Saturday in Troy, commemorations will move to Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama for a private remembrance followed by a public viewing.

John Lewis
John Lewis, left, was the youngest of the so-called Big Six activists who organised the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his iconic I Have A Dream speech [File: Harry Harris/AP]

On Sunday, a procession will escort Lewis’s coffin from Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which many have called to be renamed in honour of Lewis. It was there that Lewis, during an historic 1965 civil rights march that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”, had his skull fractured by police, one of many times he suffered such beatings.

Searing TV images of that brutality helped galvanise national opposition to racial oppression and embolden leaders in Washington, DC to pass the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act five months later, which removed some voting barriers for Black Americans.

On Sunday afternoon, events will again move to the city of Montgomery, where the public has been encouraged to line sidewalks as the procession travels to the State Capitol.  

US Capitol memorial 

On Monday, Lewis will lie in state in the Rotunda of the US Capitol for viewing, initially, by a small, invitation-only group.

The coffin will then be moved to the top of the steps at the Capitol’s East Front for public viewing on Monday evening and all day Tuesday, according to the Washington Post. 

John Lewis civil rights
John Lewis was the youngest of the so-called Big Six activists who helped organise the march on Washington where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr gave his infamous I Have a Dream speech [File: Yuri Gripas/Reuters]

Out of concern for the pandemic, the Lewis family has asked that people not travel from across the country to pay respects, and instead post virtual tributes.

The week of solemn commemorations will end on Thursday in Atlanta, Georgia, where Lewis will be laid to rest after a private service in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King once preached.

During Saturday’s memorial, Lewis’s sister, Rosa Tyner, recalled asking the civil rights icon a week before his death if he wanted to see another doctor. 

“He said, ‘No, I’m at peace … and I’m ready to go.'”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies