WASHINGTON – John Lewis has returned to the nation’s capital one last time.
Onlookers applauded as his hearse drove onto the Capitol grounds following a route that took his motorcade passed many landmarks significant to Lewis.
One member of the guard fainted in the heat before Lewis’ flag-draped casket was lifted from the hearse and carried up the East Front 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 six 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 loved on both side 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.”
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.
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.
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’ 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 protestsunfolded over the death of George Floyd.
“He met the mayor there and really passed the torch,” 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.”
Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones attended the motorcade passing because of how much Lewis 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 five or six 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.
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 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.
The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building: Lewis authored 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 sat in the courtroom when the case was argued.
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 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 “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.
‘One country, one destiny’
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.
On Monday, Lewis – the civil rights icon known as the “conscience of the Congress” – will lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, his body resting on the same wooden platform constructed in 1865 to support Lincoln’s casket.
“John’s life was about that: One nation, one country, one destiny, more perfect union,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said on Sunday. “Now he’s sharing that resting place with Abraham Lincoln.”
Accompanied by a military honor guard, Lewis is scheduled to arrive Monday afternoon at the Capitol, where he served for more than thirty years.
Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will speak at an arrival ceremony that is limited in size because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Wreaths will be presented by other House and Senate leaders and by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
“I remember walking into his office and looking around at what was almost a photography gallery, with lots of pictures from the ’60s, and the challenges and the struggles that he had faced to really make it easier for people like me to become a United States senator,” Scott, the first African American senator from South Carolina told USA TODAY.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., will give the benediction. Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, met Lewis 60 years ago at a meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta.
“The country lost a hero, our civil rights movements lost an icon, and I lost a very special friend on July 17,” Clyburn wrote in an opinion piece last week. “He was the personification of the collective activism of that era.”
Because of social distancing requirements from COVID-19, the casket will be moved to the Capitol’s east front for public viewing after lawmakers have paid their respects. Mask-wearing members of the public can file past the steps on the East Plaza. from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign announced Sunday night that he and Jill Biden would travel to Washington to pay their respects to Lewis.
Public viewing will continue Tuesday, from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Lewis will lie in state in Georgia’s capitol rotunda Wednesday before his funeral in Atlanta on Thursday.
George Herbert Walker 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.”
Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry, Bart Jansen and Nicholas Wu, USA TODAY.
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