John Lewis: voice of civil rights leader rings out one final time at lying-in-state
John Lewis was a gentle man but a stentorian speechmaker. On Monday, for the last time, his courageous voice echoed in the halls of the Capitol and brought all who heard it to a standstill.
As the recording of Lewis ended, Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, took her seat and the Rotunda erupted in applause. Then Pelosi rose to her feet again and everyone followed her lead. In a perfect circle, the guests stood and clapped the casket draped in the Stars and Stripes on a black catafalque at their centre.
They had come to bid farewell to “the conscience of the Congress” who served in the House of Representatives for 33 years. Lewis died on 17 July from pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. On Sunday his remains made one last journey across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he bled for civil rights in 1965.
On Monday the casket arrived in Washington and made four poignant stops: the Martin Luther King memorial, the Lincoln Memorial (where he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963), the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (a project that is one of his great legacies) and the new Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House, recognising a movement that gave his career exquisite symmetry. Police could be seen saluting the hearse as it went by.
Then the casket was solemnly carried up the US Capitol steps. Lewis, who grew up on a farm in rural Alabama in the Jim Crow south, became the first Black member of Congress to lie in state in the US Capitol rotunda, resting on a catafalque previously used for Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and the supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall.
The paradoxes of the American experiment were manifest as statues of the slave-owning presidents George Washington and Andrew Jackson, and a bust of the civil rights leader King, looked on in the magnificent building constructed with enslaved labour.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, offered a eulogy. “America’s original sin of slavery was allowed to fester for far too long,” he said. “It left a long wake of pain, violence, and brokenness that has taken great efforts from great heroes to address.
“John’s friend Dr Martin Luther King Jr famously said ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. But that is never automatic. History only bent toward what’s right because people like John paid the price to help bend it.”
McConnell is currently blocking a vote on extending the newly renamed John Lewis Voting Rights Act, as well as acting as chief enabler of Donald Trump’s conservative agenda. Asked at the White House if he intends to pay his respects to Lewis, the president said tersely: “No, I won’t be going. No.” Trump and Lewis had fierce disagreements. But his election rival, Joe Biden, did come to the Rotunda with his wife, Jill.
Those guests present on Monday sat physically distanced from one another and wearing face masks, some of which bore Lewis’s celebrated phrase, “Good trouble”, taken from his exhortation: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Pelosi, wearing black, with a US flag mask lowered around her neck, paid tribute to his lifelong fight against segregation and for racial justice. “Here in Congress, John was revered and beloved on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the Capitol,” she said. “We knew that he always worked on the side of the angels – and now, we know that he is with them.”
And as if she were standing in the chamber, she said: “It is my personal privilege, right now, for me to yield, to our beloved colleague, the distinguished gentleman from Georgia, Congressman John Lewis.”
The Rotunda was hushed as that familiar, fiery voice resounded once more. On the recording, Lewis said: “As young people, you must understand that there are forces that want to take us back to another period. But you must say that we’re not going back, we’ve made too much progress
“There may be some setbacks, some delays, some disappointment, but you must never, ever give up or give in. You must keep the faith and keep your eyes on the prize. That is your calling, that is your mission, that is your moral obligation, that is your mandate.”
After the applause, there was a rousing rendition of Amazing Grace from Wintley Phipps, a singer and education activist. Wreaths were laid ahead of a public viewing on the Capitol steps, which Vice-President Mike Pence is set to attend.
John-Miles Lewis stood before his father’s casket. Pelosi, a Catholic, made the sign of the cross and blew a kiss to this lion of the “greatest generation” of the civil rights struggle – a generation now slipping away.