The American people said goodbye to a gentle giant Thursday in Atlanta.
U.S. Rep. John Robert Lewis died July 17, following a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer, at the age of 80.
His Thursday service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Lewis was a member and where Martin Luther King Jr. was once the pastor, concluded a week of memorials and accolades.
A native of Troy, Ala., Lewis, a Democrat, was known around the world for his part in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In 1965, Lewis led the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
He was there for the infamous Bloody Sunday, when armed Alabama state troopers and sheriff police then attacked the nonviolent marchers including Lewis, Hosea Williams and Amelia Boynton.
Sunday, his casket was carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma for the last time, the Associated Press reported.
A member of the Democratic Party, Lewis was first elected to Congress in 1986 and served for 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Due to his length of service, he became the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation. The district he represented includes the northern three-quarters of Atlanta.
When Lewis was 15, he heard King’s sermons on WRMA, a radio station in Montgomery, Ala., he recalled in an interview for the Southern Oral History Program.
“Later I saw him on many occasions in Nashville while I was in school between 1958 and ’61,” Lewis said. “In a sense, he was my leader.”
By the summer of 1963, Lewis was addressing thousands of people during the March on Washington, speaking shortly before King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis spoke then about Black people beaten by police and jailed.
Shortly before he died, Lewis wrote, in an essay published Thursday in the New York Times, that he visited Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington last month because he wanted to see for himself that “truth is marching on.” Lewis urged activists to continue the fight for civil rights.
“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor,” Lewis wrote. “He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.”
Lewis believed ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by “getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
He stressed voting and participating in the democratic process are key.
“The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, praised Lewis as a model of courage and a “peacemaker.”
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore masks with the message “Good Trouble,” a nod to Lewis’ signature advice and the COVID-19 pandemic that has made for unusual funeral arrangements.
President Barack Obama, who awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, recalled an incident from his Inauguration Day in 2009.
At a luncheon that day, Lewis handed Obama a copy of his ticket to the inauguration and asked for an autograph.
“It’s because of you, John,” the first black American president wrote to Lewis.
Obama also reminisced, in an essay published shortly after Lewis’s death, about their final private talk in early June, after the two had held a virtual town hall with young activists. Lewis told Obama how inspiring the group was.
“I told him that all those young people – of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation – they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it,” Obama wrote.
“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time,” Lewis wrote in his final essay. “People on every continent have stood in your shoes, though decades and centuries before you.
“The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”
Lewis urged us to answer the highest callings of our hearts and stand up for what we believe.
“In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring,” he wrote.
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war,” Lewis continued. “So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
“He was my hero,” Ebenezer’s senior pastor, The Rev. Raphael Warnock, told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “He laid it all on the line, at the risk of life and limb.”
Perhaps Warnock best summed up Lewis’ life.
“He was wounded for America’s transgressions, crushed for our iniquities and by his bruises we are healed,” Warnock said in a statement before the funeral. “Today we weep. Tomorrow we continue the work of healing that was his life’s work.”
Randal Seyler, managing editor of The Sun, can be reached at 870-935-5525, Ext. 244, or email@example.com.