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A ‘Hero’s Farewell’ as Civil Rights Icon John Lewis is honored at Capitol Rotunda

The casket of former Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) arrives for a memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda on July 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. Lewis, a civil rights icon and fierce advocate of voting rights for African Americans, will lie in state at the Capitol. Lewis died on July 17 at the age of 80. (Photo by Shawn Thew)
MSN News

WASHINGTON – As he prepared for the invocation for Lewis’ service, Grainger Browning Jr. wanted to highlight Rep. John Lewis’ humble beginnings and his life’s work on voting rights.

“His heart and passion was making sure we had the right to vote,” said Browning, pastor of the Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Maryland, attended by Lewis’ longtime chief of staff.

Lewis first visited Browning’s church in the 1990s when he wrote his autobiography “Walking with the Wind.”

He last visited in December when he shared his cancer diagnosis, shortly before the public announcement.

Browning said he’d bonded with Lewis on a plane ride to Alabama in March for the congressman’s annual pilgrimage to Selma to commemorate “Bloody Sunday.” During one event, Browning delivered a prayer at the historic Brown Chapel A.M.E. where Lewis and other civil rights protesters sought refuge during the 1965 walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Lewis had left the program early because of his health but returned to shake Browning’s hand and tell him he loved him.

“I shook his hand back and said, ‘I love you, too, congressman,’’ Browning recalled. It was the last time Browning would see Lewis in person.

Browning last spoke with Lewis by phone soon after the congressman visited Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. in June.

“Just for us to get through to pray with him,” he said, “was special.”

Vice President Pence pays respect

Dressed in black and wearing black face masks, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, paid their respects to Lewis at the Capitol Monday evening.

Lewis’ coffin had been moved to the East Front Portico of the Capitol, following an afternoon ceremony in the rotunda, to allow members of the public to honor Lewis from the plaza below the steps.

The Pences stood behind the casket, as cameras clicked from below.

Pence served with Lewis in Congress and was among the many lawmakers who participated with Lewis in reenactments of Bloody Sunday by crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge together.

“John was a great man whose personal courage and decades of public service changed American forever,” Pence later tweeted. “God Bless the memory of John Lewis. May his example ever inspire.”

Other notable officials who paid their respects after Monday’s ceremony included  Vice President Joe Biden, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

After Biden left the rotunda, he encountered Rep. Karen Bass, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus who is among the women under consideration to be Biden’s running mate.

Biden thanked Bass “for putting up with me.”

When a reporter asked if there was anything he wanted to ask the congresswomen, he jokingly responded: “I’ve asked her to be vice president. She said `No.’”

A ‘hero’s farewell’

John Lewis returned to the nation’s capital one last time Monday.

Onlookers applauded as the hearse carrying the late congressman and civil rights icon drove onto the Capitol grounds following a route that took his motorcade passed many landmarks significant to him.

There was the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis’ friend and mentor.

Then the Lincoln Memorial. Lewis had been the last living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice that culminated at the memorial.

Lewis had made his last public appearance in June at the Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, where he had “passed the torch,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described it.

“John Lewis brought the world here today because his impact and legacy will be forever known around the world,” Georgia state Rep. Rep. Vernon Jones told USA TODAY after Lewis’ hearse drove through the plaza, located near the White House. “I am a living product of John Lewis.”

After the motorcade had headed up Pennsylvania Avenue, President Donald Trump told reporters he wouldn’t be going to the Capitol to pay his respects as Lewis lies in state for two days.

“No, I won’t be going, no,” he told reporters as he left the White House for a trip to North Carolina.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, stood in front of the casket for several moments in the late afternoon, before the casket was scheduled to be brought to the Capitol’s east front for public viewing.

After the hearse arrived at the Capitol, one member of Lewis’ honor guard fainted in the heat before Lewis’ flag-draped casket was lifted from the hearse and carried up the steps.

“Ready, step! Ready, step! Ready, step!” the guard called out as it moved in unison.

Inside the Capitol Rotunda, members of the House and Senate and other invited guests sat 6 feet apart in concentric circles.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, wearing face masks that read “Good Trouble,” sat together.

The honor guard carried Lewis’ casket to the center of the rotunda and, with bowed heads, placed it on the catafalque constructed in 1865 to support Abraham Lincoln’s casket.

“John was revered and beloved on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the Capitol,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “We knew that he always worked on the side of the angels. And now, we know that he is with them.”

The last time Pelosi saw Lewis, a few weeks before he died, she brought him a pin that said “One country, one destiny.”

Those were the words embroidered into the coat that Abraham Lincoln was wearing the night he was assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer.

Pelosi said Lewis’ identification with Lincoln was clear 57 years ago when, at the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, Lewis declared, “Our minds, souls, and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all the people.”

“Between then and now, John Lewis became a titan of the Civil Rights Movement and then, the `Conscience of the U.S. Congress,’” she said.

Referencing King’s famous saying, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said “history only bent toward what’s right because people like John paid the price” – at a Nashville lunch counter, in a jail cell, at a bus station in South Carolina, and beyond.

“Even though the world around him gave him every cause for bitterness,” McConnell said, Lewis treated everyone “with respect and love.”

As Christian vocalist Wintley Phipps sang an emotional version of “Amazing Grace,” Rep. Johanna Hayes, D-Conn., saw Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-N.Y., crying. She reached into her purse and handed him a tissue.

Placing his hand on his father’s casket, Lewis’ only son, John-Miles Lewis, led the procession of mourners paying their respects at the conclusion of the service.

Leaders of Congress formed a half-ring around the casket. Pelosi blew Lewis a kiss from her masked mouth.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus came up as a group to surround their colleague. Some wiped tears from their eyes.

“He sacrificed so much for people that he had never met to make this country strive towards a more perfect Union,” Sen. Tim Scott, the first African American senator from South Carolina, said after the ceremony. “It’s a hero’s farewell and earned, deserved in every way.”

Trump won’t attend Lewis’ memorial services

President Donald Trump said Monday he would not be attending Lewis’ memorial services at the Capitol this week.

“No, I won’t be going, no,” he told reporters as he left the White House for a trip to North Carolina.

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife are scheduled to pay their respects as Lewis lies in state Monday evening.

Trump and Lewis shared a turbulent history.

In 2017, Trump lashed out at Lewis on Twitter, accusing him of being “all talk … no action or results,” after the congressman said he would skip Trump’s inauguration. Lewis considered Trump an illegitimate president because of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

‘Living product of John Lewis’

Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones attended the passing of Lewis’ motorcade because of how much the congressman meant to him and his political career in the state legislature and county government.

“John Lewis brought the world here today because his impact and legacy will be forever known around the world,” Jones told USA TODAY. “He was one of Georgia’s tallest pines that fell.”

Jones was born in 1960, so he was a young boy as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed. His parents were unable to vote, but Jones became an elected official who helps set public policy.

“I am a living product of John Lewis,” Jones said.

Jones asked Lewis for advice during Jones’ first campaign in 1990. “He said shake as many hands as you can and I never stop shaking hands,” Jones said.

A final ride through Washington

Lewis, who died July 17 from pancreatic cancer at 80, arrived at Maryland’s Joint Base Andrews after two days of tributes in Alabama.

The family and friends traveling with him include Lewis’ only son, John-Miles Lewis, as well as siblings, nieces and nephews.

a group of people walking down the street in front of a flag: A hearse with the flag-draped casket of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., drives on 16th Street, renamed, Black Lives Matter Plaza.Bart Jansen, USA TODAY A hearse with the flag-draped casket of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., drives on 16th Street, renamed, Black Lives Matter Plaza.

The motorcade passed by several landmarks important to the civil rights icon and longtime lawmaker before arriving at the Capitol, where flags are at half-staff in his honor. The landmarks included:

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: King was a friend and mentor to Lewis, who often said King changed his life and taught him the discipline and philosophy of non-violence and non-violent direct action that he used as a foundation for his activism.

a group of people posing for the camera: The flag-draped casket of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is carried by a joint services military honor guard to the hearse, Monday, July 27, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.Alex Brandon, AP The flag-draped casket of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is carried by a joint services military honor guard to the hearse, Monday, July 27, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

The Lincoln Memorial: Lewis was the last living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice that culminated at the memorial. The march was one of Lewis’s first official acts after becoming the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

There had been calls for last-minute changes to Lewis’ speech. The day before, some people, including local clergy and Kennedy administration officials, had objected to parts of his speech, including a reference to people marching across the South like Union General William Sherman.

Lewis, in a dark suit and tie, headed to the stage with his three-paged single-spaced speech he had not rehearsed.

“He didn’t have time to really review,’’ Courtland Cox, who worked with Lewis at the committee, remembers. “He had to do it on the fly before 250,000 people and the nation.”

Black Lives Matter Plaza: Lewis made his last public appearance on June 7 at the plaza, a section of 16th Street near the White House where the city painted the words “Black Lives Matter” in 35-foot yellow capital letters as part of the protests unfolded over the death of George Floyd.

“He met the mayor there and really passed the torch,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Sunday.

Elmira Walker, 79, of Washington, D.C., went to the plaza to see the motorcade drive by in order to impress on her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren Lewis’ importance in their lives.

“I was moved to come because I feel like at my age I have to do it now,” she told USA TODAY.

“I could relate to almost everything that he talked about – raised in the South, coming out of the fields and so forth,” said Walker, who was raised in Scotland Neck, N.C., and whose mother and grandmother never got a chance to vote.

“It was a painful thing that you could work and couldn’t vote – you didn’t have a voice,” Walker said. “Because of his voice and because of the example of what he said, he meant a lot to me.”

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture: “It is a dream come true,” Lewis said at the 2016 dedication of the museum, the end of a century-long campaign for a repository of black history on the National Mall. The idea, which originated with Black veterans of the Civil War, had been languishing for decades when Texas Rep. Mickey Leland asked Lewis to take up the charge after Lewis’ 1986 election to Congress. After Leland was killed in a 1989 plane crash, Lewis introduced authorizing legislation every year until it one became law in 2003.

“Giving up on dreams is not an option for me,” Lewis wrote in 2016. It was one of his proudest legislative achievements and he is known as the “Godfather” of the museum.

a person standing on a sidewalk: A life-size picture of John Lewis is posted next to a freshly repainted Black Lives Matter street mural near the White House.Bart Jansen, USA TODAY A life-size picture of John Lewis is posted next to a freshly repainted Black Lives Matter street mural near the White House.

The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building: Lewis whoauthored legislation to rename the Justice Department building for Robert Kennedy, and he had worked on Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Lewis was campaigning in Indianapolis with Kennedy when it was announced that King had been shot. A few months later, Lewis was among the campaign workers at the Ambassador Hotel, waiting for Kennedy to return to his hotel room after giving a speech, when Kennedy was assassinated.

The National Council of Negro Women: The organization was led for more than 50 years by Dorothy Height, another civil rights leader. Height was a key organizer of the March on Washington. Female leaders like Height and Rosa Parks walked down Independence Avenue while the men proceeded down Pennsylvania Avenue with the press.

The U.S. Supreme Court: Before arriving at the Capitol, the motorcade passed by the Supreme Court, where the words “Equal Justice Under Law” are engraved above the entrance. That goal is what Lewis fought for his entire life, organizers say. When he died, Lewis was still pushing to restore a portion of the Voting Rights Act that the court struck down in 2013. Lewis hadsat in the courtroom when the case was argued.

After an arrival ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, Lewis’ casket will return to the East Front, facing the Supreme Court, so the public can walk past to pay respect.

a building with a metal fence: Security barriers are seen setup for the public viewing later in the day of former Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) in Washington, DC on July 27, 2020.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS, AFP via Getty Images Security barriers are seen setup for the public viewing later in the day of former Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) in Washington, DC on July 27, 2020.

‘Long overdue’

Just hours ahead of the Capitol Hill ceremony, about a dozen lawmakers, most of them dressed in black, took turns on the House floor pushing legislation the importance of a bill that would set up a commission to study the social status of Black men and boys.

California Rep. Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the proposal Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys Act “long overdue.”

“We’ve come a long way in America, but we still have a long way to go,’’ said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who noted the nation’s history of slavery. “We are still living with its legacy today.”

Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore black face masks that read “Good Trouble,” a phrase Lewis frequently used to describe his advocacy for civil rights and other issues.

Pictures of Lewis greeted visitors as they entered the Capitol.

Inside the rotunda, where the statue of King looked down and the statue of Rosa Parks stood in a nearby room, programs for the ceremony rested in rows of black chairs.

Some of the invited guests arrived long before the 1:30 p.m. service was scheduled to begin.

“It’s the proper thing to do,’’ South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn said of the honors for Lewis, who will be the first African America lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond noted that Lewis has been working on civil rights issues since he was 15 years old.

“I think the country owes a person like that one hell of a sendoff,” he said.

George H.W. Bush was the last person to lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, an honor given to American statesmen and military leaders, including twelve U.S. presidents.

Longtime congressman Elijah E. Cummings, who died last October, was the first African American lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol, though not in the rotunda.

In 2005, civil rights icon Rosa Parks laid “in honor” in the rotunda, the tribute given to private citizens who have not served in government or the military.

The Lincoln catafalque, rough pine boards nailed together and covered in a black cloth, has been used for most of those who have lain “in state” in the rotunda.

The base and platform have occasionally been altered to accommodate the larger size of modern coffins, but otherwise has changed little since Lincoln’s time, according to the Architect of the Capitol.

While the cloth covering has needed to be replaced over the years, the style of the drapery has remained the same.

Because of the pandemic, the Lewis family has encouraged supporters to organize “John Lewis Virtual Love Events” in their homes to watch the ceremonies rather than traveling to public ceremonies. People can also show support by tying a blue or purple ribbon on their doors or in their front yards, by posting tributes on social media using the hashtags  #BelovedCommunity or #HumanDignity, or by leaving a written tribute at www.theJohnLewisLegacy.com.

Members of Congress spent hours on the floor last week offering testimonials.

“In the coming days, when the streets are filled with those who mourn John, we will see people in fine suits and people in rags,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. “We will see laborers and professionals. We will see faces pained by disease or poverty. But all of them will rejoice that John Lewis lived.”

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