The late civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis was honored at a bipartisan and bicameral ceremony Monday as lawmakers gathered in socially distant seating in the Capitol Rotunda to remember their colleague and friend.
Lewis’ American flag-draped casket was brought into Statuary Hall and placed on the Lincoln catafalque, the same platform built and used during the funeral of Abraham Lincoln after the 16th president was assassinated in 1865.
Many lawmakers, especially members of the Congressional Black Caucus, donned black cloth masks with one of Lewis’ favorite phrases for civil disobedience and fighting systems of injustice, “Good Trouble.”
Lewis, who served more than three decades in Congress as a Democrat representing Atlanta, died July 17. He was 80 years old and was in treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Many lawmakers were in place Monday nearly an hour before Lewis’ casket arrived and the ceremony got underway, leaving time for greetings, group photos and selfies. Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt was recruited to take a group photo of a large cohort of Black lawmakers.
The invocation from Rev. Grainger Browning Jr. touched on Lewis’ leadership in the civil rights movement, his civil disobedience and lifelong fight for racial justice and voting rights, including a brief plug for vote-by-mail this year.
Browning said that Lewis would have been welcomed into heaven by the late Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who died in October 2019, and that Emmett Till and George Floyd would be thanking Lewis for his work to ensure they did not die in vain.
“Here in Congress, John was revered and beloved on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the Capitol,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “We knew that he always worked on the side of angels, and now we know that he is with them.”
“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 [the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom], taking up the unfinished work of racial justice,” the California Democrat said.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser was among those present, and Pelosi acknowledged the striking photos of Lewis and Bowser visiting the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House in June.
Pelosi closed her remarks with audio of one of Lewis’ own speeches booming through speakers and echoing dramatically under the Capitol Dome. His colleagues gave him a lengthy standing ovation at the clip’s conclusion, and the tremendous echo gave the impression that thousands were clapping, instead of just a socially distanced few.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who, like Lewis, was born in Alabama, recalled his time at the 1963 march, where Lewis was among the speakers.
“The sight gave me hope for our country. That was John’s doing, even on that day, as his voice echoed across the Mall, I wonder how many dared imagine that young man would come to walk the halls of the Congress,” the Kentucky Republican said. “America’s original sin of slavery was allowed to fester for far too long. It left a long wake of pain, violence and brokenness that has taken great efforts from great heroes to address.”
“Even though the world around him gave him every cause for bitterness, he stubbornly treated everyone with respect and love,” said McConnell.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California together laid a wreath during the ceremony, followed by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott with another wreath.
When the formal ceremony concluded, Lewis’ family left the Rotunda, and House and Senate leaders of both parties lined up, shoulder to shoulder facing the casket, before moving toward the exits.
Some Congressional Black Caucus members, and a few other stragglers who were seated among them, encircled Lewis’ casket. Many bowed their heads in prayer or put their hands over their hearts. As they prepared to leave, many at once placed their hands on the casket together, some kneeling.
The CBC, which has more than 50 members in the 116th Congress, is the largest it has ever been since its inception in the early 1970s, a tribute in and of itself to Lewis’ legacy.
Every face under the Capitol Dome was covered with a mask, and seats were widely spaced in concentric circles, a reminder that the ceremony for Lewis came as the coronavirus pandemic continued.
The honor to lie in state generally requires the concurrence of both chambers of Congress, and Pelosi and McConnell put aside the ongoing fight over the next steps on coronavirus aid to jointly approve the ceremonies.
The Capitol has been closed to nearly all visitors since March, and the ceremony to honor Lewis was a dramatic departure from recent weeks, when lawmakers have avoided gathering.
The Capitol’s attending physician, Brian Monahan, was on hand, seated toward the back, with an eye on the event.
Medical attention was required outside just before the ceremony began, when a member of the military honor guard in full dress uniform collapsed as the temperature reached the mid-90s.
With approximately 120 seats circling the Rotunda, many lawmakers who wanted to pay their respects were not able to attend the ceremony. Once it concluded, a steady stream of House members came through to place their hand on the casket, kneel before it, close their eyes in prayer or perform the sign of the cross in a personal gesture of goodbye to their colleague.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.