By Eric Velasco, The Washington Post
Fifty-five years ago, Alabama state troopers beat John Lewis and hundreds of protesters as they crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge. On Sunday, troopers saluted the late civil rights leader after he made his final journey across the span.
The body of the 17-term congressman was carried on a horse-drawn caisson from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to the bridge, where rose petals had been scattered. Two horses and a driver led the flag-draped casket, which paused a few minutes on the bridge above the Alabama River. On the other side, the words of “We Shall Overcome” could be heard as family, hundreds of onlookers and several troopers greeted Lewis.
A military honor guard moved the casket from the caisson to a hearse for the trip to Montgomery. Alabama state police were accompanying Lewis to the state capital.
“It is poetic justice that this time Alabama state troopers will see John to his safety,” Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) said.
The ceremony is the second day in six days of tributes to the son of sharecroppers, fighter for civil rights and lawmaker widely hailed as the conscience of Congress. Lewis (D-Ga.) died July 17 at the age of 80 after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer.
The honors began Saturday in Lewis’s birthplace of Troy, Ala., with prayers, family recollections, songs and a plea to carry on his legacy of fighting for a more just society. It will end Thursday with a service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached.
In between, Lewis will lie in state in two state capitols — Montgomery and Atlanta — and in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, where the nation has paid tribute to past presidents, lawmakers and other distinguished citizens, including civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in 2005.
Lewis’s crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge 55 years ago was a defining moment for a nation and the young activist. The ceremony on Sunday comes amid a national reckoning over systemic racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, and weeks of protests nationwide.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis, then the 25-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led about 600 protesters in a march across the bridge for civil rights. State troopers beat the demonstrators, and Lewis suffered a cracked skull on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
“I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick,” Lewis said decades later. “I really believe to this day that I saw death.”
Within months, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which was meant to end the obstacles preventing black people from voting.
John Lewis nearly died on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Now it may be renamed for him.
In subsequent years, Lewis has led an annual march of Republicans and Democrats, current and former presidents across the bridge. Most notably, in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, he walked across the span with the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama; former president George W. Bush; and many of the foot soldiers of the 1960s movement.
“We just need to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us,” Obama said. “We know the march is not yet over; we know the race is not yet won. We know reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.”
In the days after Lewis’s death, there have been renewed calls for Congress to act on voting rights and name the legislation in Lewis’s honor. In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a crucial component of the landmark law, ruling that Congress had not taken into account the nation’s racial progress when citing certain states for federal oversight.
The House passed legislation in December to restore those protections, but the bill has languished in the GOP-led Senate.
There also have been calls to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge for Lewis. Pettus was a Confederate officer and a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
At the service at Troy University on Saturday, Lewis’s flag-draped casket was carried by men in masks, and attendees were seated six feet apart, a reminder that the country is still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 150,000 Americans, a disproportionate number from low-income, minority communities.
Lewis’s brother Freddie Lewis implored people to continue his legacy by voting. His sister Rosa Mae Tyner recalled that he “lived with the never-ending desire to help others.” Another brother, Henry “Grant” Lewis, said Lewis “would gravitate toward the least of us.”
The late congressman’s young great-nephew, Jaxon Lewis Brewster, called Lewis his “hero.” “It’s up to us to keep his legacy alive,” the 7-year-old said.
Henry Grant Lewis recalled his last conversation with his brother the night before he died. Lewis was, as always, concerned about others, asking how the family was doing and wanting his brother to tell them he’d asked about them.
Henry Grant Lewis also shared an exchange he’d had with his brother when he was first sworn in to Congress. The new lawmaker looked up at his family watching from the gallery above the House floor and flashed his brother a thumbs up. Afterward, Henry Grant Lewis asked his brother what he was thinking when he made that gesture. “I was thinking,” he recalled his brother saying, “this is a long way from the cotton fields of Alabama.”