In sweltering 95-degree heat, members of the public gathered at the steps of the United States Capitol on Tuesday to commemorate the life and death of the late John Lewis, a civil rights icon and seventeen-term Congressman from Georgia. A single honor guard stood behind the flag-covered coffin as Americans of all races gathered below to pay their respects to Lewis.
“John Lewis fought for one of the founding principles of this country: a more perfect union,” D.C. native Charles Owens, who visited the Capitol to see Lewis on Tuesday, told The Gate. “He was one of the better angels of mankind.”
This week, Lewis became only the thirty-third individual in American history to “lie in state,” an honor involving a coffin being publicly displayed so that the public may pay their respects. The previous day, lawmakers had gathered in the Capitol Rotunda to hold a service for their late colleague. “John’s friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,’” quoted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “But that is never automatic. History only bent toward what’s right because people like John paid the price to help bend it. He paid that price at every national lunch counter where his leadership made segregation impossible to ignore. He paid it in every jail cell where he waited out hatred and oppression. He paid that price from the harassment and beatings in South Carolina to the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”
Born to sharecroppers on February 21, 1940 in southeastern Alabama, Lewis grew up attending segregated schools and was “encouraged by his parents not to challenge the inequities of the Jim Crow South.” Nonetheless, from a young age Lewis eagerly dove into the nascent Civil Rights Movement stirring in Alabama. He met Rosa Parks in 1957 and befriended Martin Luther King, Jr. the following year, when Lewis was only eighteen years old. As a college student, Lewis organized sit-ins to protest segregation at Fisk University in Nashville.
In 1961, twenty-one-year-old Lewis became one of the thirteen original Freedom Riders, an organized group of activists who rode to Southern states and peacefully violated segregation laws by attempting to use “whites-only” public facilities. On one of the first such rides, locals attacked and beat Lewis and two other Riders for trying to enter a whites-only waiting room in South Carolina. Two days later, the Freedom Riders’ Greyhound bus arrived in Anniston, Alabama to find a 200-person mob awaiting it. Members of the all-white rabble blew out the bus’s tires, threw a bomb inside, and attacked the Riders as they attempted to escape.
Two years later, Lewis served as the president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was one of the main organizers of the famous 1963 March on Washington. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he declared, “To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now. We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.”
Lewis was arrested forty times between 1960-1966 and assaulted countless more, from waiting rooms in South Carolina to the now-famous Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where a state trooper fractured his skull. Before seeking medical attention, Lewis took the time to address the protestors he had inspired to turn out. “I don’t understand it,” Lewis later recalled saying. “I don’t understand how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote.”
Lewis became an Atlanta City Councilman in 1981 and was elected to the House of Representatives six years later, where he worked passionately for racial justice until his death. Among his legislative accomplishments were the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which empowers law enforcement to reopen “cold cases” and provides funds to victims’ families, and 2003’s H.R. 3491, which led to the creation of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
At a 2014 Emory University commencement address, Lewis called for students, activists, and all other Americans to “get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble,” words that played around the Capitol Rotunda from a digital recording during the service on Monday. The following day, many of those who stood at the bottom of the Capitol steps wore the words “good trouble” on t-shirts and face masks.
The flag outside the Rayburn House Office Building flies at half-mast in honor of John Lewis.
Many of the commemorators tied Lewis’s legacy to the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide protests for racial equality. Lewis himself supported the movement; one of his final public appearances was at Black Lives Matter Plaza in downtown Washington.
“When John made his speech fifty-seven years ago, he was the youngest speaker in the March on Washington program,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at Lewis’s Monday service. “How fitting it is that in the final days of his life, he summoned the strength to acknowledge the young people peacefully protesting in the same spirit of that march, taking on the unfinished work of racial justice, helping complete the journey begun more than fifty-five years ago.”
“He inspired us, all of us, to make a difference,” said Katrina Faulkner, a CDC communications specialist who paid her respects to Lewis on Tuesday. “No matter what community you come from, we have something to learn from each other. We are all difference-makers, whether it’s to our own families, to our neighbors, to our community, to our city—to the future. America is changing, and we are the ones that are going to decide what America becomes.”
Lewis himself encouraged younger generations to remember and commemorate the lives of past leaders. “It is so important to find a way to keep this legacy alive, because so many of the people that participated are not here,” he told NPR in 2005. “So we must not only tell the story through writings and tapes and videos, but we must also take people back to Montgomery, take people to the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery so they can feel and touch. Go back to those churches where the mass meetings were held. Take our young people, our children on educational tours so they can be inspired by saying, `This is where Rosa Parks got on the bus. This is the church where the mass meeting was held.' I think it's important to touch these stones, these historic fights that brought us to the point where we are today.”
A poster commemorating Lewis outside the Capitol building.
One would hope, then, that if he could see the throngs of Americans of all races gathering at the steps of the Capitol to pay tribute to his accomplishments, many of them eager to fight for more, John Lewis would smile.
All images were taken by the author.
Jake Biderman is a third-year political science major interested in law who spent the summer covering the Democratic caucuses in Des Moines. When he’s not worrying about Americans’ critical thinking skills, he’s exercising, learning foreign languages, or watching baseball. Go Nats!