John Lewis to Lie in State in the Capitol Rotunda
WASHINGTON — When the honor guard placed Representative John Lewis’s coffin in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday, the civil rights icon’s body lay upon the same catafalque that President Abraham Lincoln’s did.
It was a fitting tribute: The raised box that once supported the president most responsible for ending slavery now carried the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Rotunda, a man who dedicated his life to ensuring that with freedom came equality.
“Under the dome of the U.S. Capitol, we have bid farewell to some of the greatest Americans in our history,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during an emotional ceremony Monday afternoon to honor Mr. Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who endured numerous arrests and beatings in his lifelong push for civil rights. “It is fitting that John Lewis joins this pantheon of patriots.”
Speakers recalled Mr. Lewis’s remarkable rise in American life, from a farmhouse in Pike County, Ala., with no running water or electricity to his leading role in the effort to end segregation and his ascent to the halls of Congress.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, invoked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a friend of Mr. Lewis’s, who once said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“But that is never automatic,” Mr. McConnell said. “History only bent toward what’s right because people like John paid the price to help bend it.”
Typically, when a lawmaker with the stature of Mr. Lewis is honored in the Capitol, the building hosts thousands of visitors. But the coronavirus pandemic limited the crowd inside the Rotunda to about 100.
The crowd was mostly a cross-section of influential lawmakers from both parties, including several potential Democratic vice-presidential picks, along with a few other notable guests. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore masks that read “Good Trouble” — a nod to one of Mr. Lewis’s favorite phrases encouraging people to stand up against injustice.
During Ms. Pelosi’s remarks, she played parts of Mr. Lewis’s 2014 commencement address at Emory University in Atlanta in which he implored students to “find a way to get into trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble.”
One notable absence from the commemoration events was President Trump, who told reporters he had no plans to attend the ceremony for Mr. Lewis, whom he had criticized in recent years.
“I won’t be going, no,” Mr. Trump said.
Vice President Mike Pence, however, was expected to pay respects, according to his public schedule, as did Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Several lawmakers were brought to tears by the vocal artist Wintley Phipps, who sang the Christian hymns “Amazing Grace” and “It Is Well.”
Before the ceremony, a solemn crowd gathered outside the building to watch the motorcade carrying Mr. Lewis arrive.
“Come on — you don’t want to miss it,” June Jeffries, 66, said as her son, Rudolph, hoisted her barefoot granddaughter, Clara, onto his shoulders to see the motorcade turn into the Capitol complex.
“My wife and I are explaining to her, particularly for her, what it means to be Black,” said Mr. Jeffries, who lives in Silver Spring, Md. “This is the type of event we wouldn’t miss.”
Both Ms. Jeffries and her son remembered the cold day they spent outside the Supreme Court to pay homage to Thurgood Marshall, its first African-American justice, after his death. On Monday, even in sweltering heat, the pair felt it was important for Clara, 4, to do the same.
“I want my daughter to understand she’s part of this community and that she has a responsibility as a member of this community to participate in these kinds of events,” he added. “Appreciate the people who made it possible for us to live as freely as we do.”
Debra Long-Doyle, 65, a retired assistant U.S. attorney, said she could not miss paying her respects, even amid a pandemic. So she biked from her Capitol Hill home wearing a face mask.
Ms. Long-Doyle said Mr. Lewis had been an inspiration in her life through “everything that he’s done for us and for Black people for our country.”
“When you march, when you do things like getting people to vote, taking people to the polls, making sure their rights are being upheld, you honor John Lewis,” Ms. Long-Doyle said. “The struggle continues, and I want to make sure that I live up to his legacy by doing everything I can to make sure that everybody’s rights are respected.”
Mr. Lewis spent only a few hours lying in state under the Capitol dome after the invitation-only ceremony on Monday afternoon.
On Monday evening, his coffin was moved outside to the Capitol steps, and members of the public lined up — with masks required and social distancing enforced — to view it from the plaza below.
The public viewing of Mr. Lewis’s coffin will continue all day Tuesday. Mr. Lewis’s family discouraged people from traveling from out of town to the Capitol amid the pandemic, instead asking for “virtual tributes” using the hashtags #BelovedCommunity or #HumanDignity.
Mr. Lewis, who as a 17-term congressman was the senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, died July 17 after battling pancreatic cancer.
He was known as the “conscience of the Congress” for his moral authority acquired through years of protest for racial equality — including when he was brutally beaten during voting rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala., in 1965 and across the Jim Crow South. On Sunday, he made his final journey across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, his coffin carried by a horse-drawn caisson past the spot where a state trooper wielding a club fractured his skull 55 years ago.
Last year, Representative Elijah E. Cummings became the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol, though he was honored in Statuary Hall, not in the Rotunda, where presidents and other statesmen have lain. The site is reserved for the nation’s most revered figures, most recently including President George Bush and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. Rosa Parks, the civil rights pioneer, lay in honor there in 2005, receiving the highest honor afforded to a private citizen.
During the ceremony Monday, the Rev. Grainger Browning Jr. of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Md., said he believed Mr. Lewis had now joined two of his friends, Mr. Cummings and Dr. King, in the afterlife.
“When he got there, Elijah Cummings and the congressional cloud of witnesses welcomed him home,” Mr. Browning said. “We heard Dr. King in the background saying, ‘Free at last, free at last, the conscience of the Congress is free at last.’”
Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.
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