WASHINGTON — The immortal words of the late civil rights leader John Lewis rang out from the U.S. Capitol Monday during a private ceremony in celebration of his life.
“You must find a way to get in the way,” he said in a recording of a 2014 commencement speech he gave at Emory University. “You must find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Upon its conclusion, lawmakers and family members in attendance gave a standing ovation.
Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican who attended the ceremony, called his former Democratic colleague a “truly great American” in a statement. “In every generation, there are a handful of people who rise to the level of greatness,” he said. “John Lewis was one of those people.”
The invitation-only ceremony brought dozens of lawmakers across the political spectrum together — even as they continue to fight over weighty matters ranging from police reform to whether to extend enhanced unemployment benefits during the pandemic.
Virtually all in attendance wore masks, some of which had the words “good trouble” emblazoned upon them — a nod to Lewis’ famed words of advice. Some also wore ribbons of purple and blue on their lapels, echoing a request from Lewis’ family members to post ribbons of those colors on their front doors or in their front yards instead of traveling to the capital to pay respects in person.
In her remarks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praised the man known as a “titan of the Civil Rights Movement” and “the conscience of the Congress.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called him a badly needed hero who helped Martin Luther King Jr. in his cause to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.
Lewis is the second Black lawmaker to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol, an honor that has been granted to only a few dozen statesmen in U.S. history. The late Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland — former chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee — was the first Black lawmaker to receive the honor after his death in October.
In a letter to her colleagues announcing the memorial service, Pelosi said the stately setting befits “John’s greatness.”
On its way to the U.S. Capitol, a motorcade bearing Lewis’ remains paused at Black Lives Matter Plaza. The street was renamed in June by Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser after the Trump administration forcefully dispersed peaceful protests for racial justice and equality.
Lewis died July 17 after a six-month battle with cancer.
Monday’s ceremony took place in the Capitol Rotunda, where seats were placed six feet apart in concentric rings around the catafalque where Abraham Lincoln’s remains once rested and where Lewis’ flag-draped casket was placed.
The ceremony also featured an invocation, Christian hymns and a benediction from South Carolina Democrat James E. Clyburn, the House Majority Whip. Congressional leaders placed wreaths beside the coffin, after which lawmakers and others lined up to pay their respects.
Lewis will lie in state outside the Capitol for a public viewing on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, he will lie in state at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta before an invitation-only funeral Thursday at the city’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
The tributes come as racial disparities are in stark relief across the nation. The dual public health and economic crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are disproportionately harming people of color, and police brutality against Black people continues despite long-standing movements against it.
During his 80 years, Lewis spoke to those and other issues as a leading civil rights advocate and a 17-term member of Congress, throughout which he remained committed to a philosophy of nonviolent activism.
The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis was the youngest and last surviving member of the “Big Six” civil rights activists who led the fight to end legalized segregation and overturn Jim Crow laws. He studied religion and philosophy at Fisk University in Nashville, where he organized lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides and other forms of activism as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In August 1963, he spoke at the March on Washington, sharing a stage with Martin Luther King Jr.
Two years later, on March 7, 1965 — a day known as “Bloody Sunday” — Lewis and other marchers were severely beaten by Alabama police officers while leading a peaceful protest on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. News coverage of police violence against the protesters — and his beating in particular — hastened passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.
Lewis began his political career as a member of the Atlanta City Council. In 1986, he was elected to Georgia’s fifth congressional district in and around Atlanta, a seat he held until his death. He was a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee and served as senior chief deputy whip for the Democrat Party in the House.
He received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He has one son, John Miles Lewis.
His death led to an outpouring of grief in Georgia and across the nation.
Last week, the U.S. House passed a resolution expressing its “profound sorrow” on his death. The chamber also observed a moment of silence that day in his memory, and members of Georgia’s delegation also paid tribute to him.
In the Senate, Perdue led a similar resolution honoring and commemorating Lewis’ life and legacy, and Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler, also a Republican, said “the nation is better because of his leadership and courage.”
State Sen. Nikema Williams, chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, will replace Lewis’s name on the November ballot. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp called a special election on Sept. 29 to fill the rest of Lewis’ term, which runs into January.