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Rep. John Lewis, often referred to as the “conscience of Congress,” laid in state in the Capitol for the last of two days Tuesday as a throng of Americans braved oppressive heat to pay their respects to the veteran lawmaker and civil rights icon.
Draped in an American flag, Lewis was slated to lie in state in Georgia’s capitol rotunda Wednesday before his funeral in Atlanta on Thursday, July 30. Following a service in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda Monday, Lewis’ casket rested in the East Front Portico for public viewing.
Due to precautionary steps taken to contain the ongoing health pandemic, visitors’ movements were limited to walking to the bottom of the Capitol’s East Front steps where they made their final salutes. The crowd included men and women of all ages and races — each wearing masks while observing social distancing directives.
Among the thousands of mourners, one couldn’t help but see a group of men dressed in royal blue blazers quietly standing at the base of the steps of the Capitol — members of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., the Black Greek organization to which Lewis also belonged. Some had driven all night from Atlanta in order to join their fraternity brothers who participated in a private farewell, the Omega service, traditionally held by fraternities and sororities.
The Rev. Grainger Browning Jr., senior pastor of Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, offered the invocation during a private service for Lewis held Monday in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Afterward, he shared a brief reflection about Lewis.
“John Lewis exemplifies the nonviolent lifestyle that Dr. King possessed more than any of King’s disciples,” he said. “He was beaten with bats, clubs and chains but he maintained an attitude of forgiveness throughout his entire life.”
While tributes continue, Black lawmakers have called upon Congress to honor the legacy of John Lewis by supporting legislation that would restore a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) says a bipartisan group of lawmakers should be designated to negotiate details.
“If you want to honor his legacy, pick a ‘gang of eight’ and let’s go to work,” Richmond, former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told a reporter for USA Today. “If they’re serious. My gut tells me they’re not.”
With Lewis presiding over the vote, the Democratic-led House passed voting rights legislation in December on which the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to move forward. The bill, which will be named after Lewis in a decision made by the House Monday, would amend the 1965 law to create a new way of measuring if states require oversight for violating minority voting rights.
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) leads a House subcommittee on elections and held a hearing Tuesday on voting rights in the U.S. territories. She says members of Congress who publicly have praised Lewis must now either “put up or shut up.”
Alabama U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, Martin Luther King III and Rep. Terri Sewell, the first Black woman to ever serve in the state, spoke during a service held July 25 in Selma at the historic Brown Chapel AME Church.
Jones said in the same way that Lewis risked his life in a journey for freedom, “that ride can’t end for us until we make it right.
Sewell said she remembered how civil rights pioneers including Coretta Scott King, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Amelia Boyington Robinson and Lewis returned years after “Bloody Sunday” to the church providing encouragement for future generations.
“They have left us with a fantastic legacy,” she said. “Every generation must move forward to protect that legacy. They are gone but never forgotten.”
Quoting his father, Martin Luther King III said men have to ask themselves specific questions when they make decisions and John Lewis often asked was it is right.
“The ultimate measure was, is it right?” King asked. “That’s who John Lewis was.”
“It was just a few good men and women, the foot soldiers,” King said during his comments. “Dad used to call them the ground crew. Ground crews used to do things you always didn’t see but if it weren’t for them there wouldn’t have been any victories.”
“This is history,” said Kimberly Curry, 30, a mortuary science student from Lexington Park, Md. She came with her 10-year-old son Josiah on Monday and waited in line for six hours.
“Standing in this heat was worth it,” she said. “John Lewis fought hard not just for himself but for everyone.”