ATLANTA – Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp hailed John Lewis on Wednesday as “a titan of the civil rights movement” as the congressman’s body arrived at the Capitol to lie in state.
Crowds cheered as Lewis’ procession arrived, with some mourners describing Lewis as a personable leader whose self-sacrifice paved the way for many of the rights that citizens enjoy today.
Lewis died July 17 at age 80 from pancreatic cancer.
In a short ceremony before the public was invited to file by the casket, Kemp, a Republican, also described Lewis, a Democrat, as a “beloved Georgian, an American hero and a friend to all who sought a better, fairer, more united society.”
Lewis, Kemp said, “urged us to love one another, to walk together, toward a better tomorrow.” His words, actions and legacy “will continue to serve as our nation’s conscience.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Lewis reminded all to ” be optimistic and to never lose a sense of hope.”
Lewis’ final journey home to Atlanta was the latest in a series of memorials in his honor. His body lay in state at the Capitol in Alabama, the state where he was born to sharecroppers, and the U.S. Capitol, where he served in Congress since 1986. His district included most of Atlanta and some suburbs.
A line of mourners wrapped around the state Capitol in Atlanta ahead of the public viewing. Some recalled meeting Lewis, who was known to enthusiastically greet supporters.
Heather Ribbs’ eyes became watery as she recalled meeting Lewis in 2017 when he visited her grandson’s school in Dekalb County for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day program. Lewis hugged her – a moment Ribbs says she will never forget.
“He was a giant of a man and he meant so much to me,” said Ribbs, 70, of Atlanta. “His bravery, his strength and his humility, he was just an example of a great human being and so dedicated to America.”
Many mourners stopped to sign a giant sympathy card for Lewis that stood on a street corner.
John Lewis, civil rights champion and the ‘conscience of Congress,’ was honored by his colleagues at the US Capitol.
Bruce W. Griggs, who accompanied the card from Washington, D.C., said he was impressed by Lewis’ humility.
“The best thing I can say about him is if there was a picture that went in Webster’s Dictionary under ‘humble,’ it would be him,” Griggs said.
Deloris Speed brought her granddaughter and her pal from Tallahassee, Florida, so they could see “there is goodness still in this world.”
She admired Lewis for always leading peaceful protests.
“He took the beatings just so they (protesters) could show peace. They didn’t take the violent route,” Speed said. “He looked to be a little man, but he had a powerful voice.”
A funeral is scheduled for Thursday at the Ebenezer Baptist Church Horizon Sanctuary at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta. Lewis was one of the organizers of the March on Washington in 1963, along with King.
In one of the most dramatic tributes to Lewis’ legacy, his casket was taken by horse and carriage across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Sunday – the same bridge he walked with voting rights activists on March 7, 1965. Lewis was severely beaten by state troopers along with other marchers on that day, which became known as Bloody Sunday, in one of the seminal moments of the civil rights movement.
Before being elected to Congress, Lewis was an Atlanta city councilman. Memorial events Wednesday were given the theme “Atlanta’s Servant Leader.”
Mourners were being required to wear a mask and practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Lewis’ family is encouraging the public to hold virtual events in their homes and watch the events on livestream platforms.
The Atlanta community is being asked to tie blue or purple ribbons around their front doors to honor Lewis.
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Terry reported from Atlanta and Woodyard from Los Angeles.
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