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Lawmakers, public bid farewell to John Lewis

Lawmakers, public bid farewell to John Lewis
© Bonnie Cash

Throngs of mourners flocked to Capitol Hill this week to join lawmakers, human rights activists and family members in bidding farewell to Rep. John LewisJohn LewisDemocrats lead in diversity in new Congress despite GOP gains Biden must look to executive action to fulfill vow to Black Americans The purposeful is political: Gen Z bowls over their doubters MORE (D-Ga.) as the late civil rights icon lay in state on the Capitol steps.

Lewis, 80, was a legendary figure on Capitol Hill, and he made history even after his death, becoming the nation’s first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

The line of people waiting to pay their respects on Monday and Tuesday at times wrapped all the way around the nearby Supreme Court, despite the intense summer heat.

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The crowds underscored Lewis’s profound impact on civil rights in America, from his efforts at sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and being the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington to leading the march in Selma, Ala., on what became known as Bloody Sunday that ultimately helped lead to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The ceremonial arrangements this week were altered dramatically by the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic. Rather than allowing members of the public to enter the Capitol Rotunda to pay their respects, Lewis’s casket was moved to the top of the east front steps so that people could walk past outside.

But the public health threat did little to discourage the crowds of well-wishers who descended on the Capitol for a last goodbye. People were in line until late Monday night and as soon as the public viewing resumed early Tuesday morning.

That, Lewis’s allies said, was no surprise.

“People drove long distances to be here to witness history, the same way they did in Selma, and the same way that they will do in Atlanta,” said Democratic Rep. Hank JohnsonHenry (Hank) C. JohnsonDemocratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Five takeaways as panel grills tech CEOs Lawmakers, public bid farewell to John Lewis MORE, a fellow Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) member from Georgia. “It’s a testament to a life well-lived, and a life of service to the people.”

A day earlier, Vice President Pence, Lewis’s former House colleague, and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE had visited the Capitol to pay their respects. Scores of lawmakers came to briefly place their hands on the casket, while some made the sign of the cross.

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Jesse Jackson, the Baptist minister and civil rights activist who twice ran for president, also came on Tuesday to bid farewell to Lewis.

Lawmakers held a nearly hourlong ceremony on Monday to mark the arrival of Lewis’s casket, with tributes from Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiUS economy hurtles toward 'COVID cliff' with programs set to expire Democrats gear up for last oversight showdown with Trump Divided citizenry and government — a call to action for common ground MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTop aide: Biden expected to visit Georgia in push to boost Ossoff, Warnock Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Richmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' MORE (R-Ky.).

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHoyer on Trump election challenges: 'I think this borders on treason' Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last MORE (D-Md.) said Lewis wanted the ceremony to be low-key.

“Yesterday’s ceremony was short at John’s request. He was a humble human being. He was a great presence, a great person, as I say, Christ-like in so many ways. But very humble, self-effacing. Not necessarily wanting the attention on him, but on the vision that he had for a beloved community and a commitment to making America live out its ideals,” Hoyer said Tuesday on CNN.

While Lewis laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda, his flag-draped casket rested atop a catafalque originally constructed in 1865 for when President Lincoln received the same honor.

During the outdoor viewing, an honor guard kept round-the-clock watch over his casket behind a display of white flowers at the top of the Capitol steps.

A steady stream of onlookers of all ages and races filed past at the bottom of the steps, while many stopped to snap photos, gaze at the casket in silence or place their hands over their hearts.

The House canceled floor votes for Tuesday while Lewis lay in state, but some committees still carried on with hearings. Lewis nevertheless loomed large in lawmakers’ minds as they proceeded with seemingly unrelated business.

Attorney General William BarrBill BarrMerrick Garland on list to be Biden's attorney general: report DOJ dropping charges against ex-Mexican defense minister DOJ watchdog finds Louisiana inmates with coronavirus were not isolated for a week MORE began his opening statement during a House Judiciary Committee hearing by expressing condolences for Lewis, whom he called “an indomitable champion of civil rights and the rule of law.”

But Barr drew ire from Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondSunday shows - Virus surge dominates ahead of fraught Thanksgiving holiday Richmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' Sunday shows preview: Biden transition, COVID-19 spike in spotlight MORE (D-La.), a former CBC chairman, later in the hearing for invoking Lewis.

Richmond, a co-chairman of Biden’s presidential campaign, criticized Barr over an apparent lack of Black officials among his top staff at the Justice Department.

“That, sir, is systematic racism. That is exactly what John Lewis spent his life fighting. And so I would just suggest that actions speak louder than words. And you should really keep the name of the honorable John Lewis out of the Department of Justice’s mouth,” Richmond said.

On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisWomen set to take key roles in Biden administration Trump campaign appeals dismissal of Pennsylvania election challenge Pressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win MORE (D-Calif.), who’s on the short list of Biden’s vice presidential picks, also took aim at Barr for invoking Lewis, accusing the attorney general of ignoring state-based voting rights infringements — the centerpiece of Lewis’s legacy.

“Bill Barr hasn’t lifted a finger as Attorney General to protect voting rights in America,” she tweeted. “He has no business speaking John Lewis’s name.”

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis also held a moment of silence for Lewis before commencing a hearing on clean energy.

“His leadership in the civil rights movement was legendary, but he worked on every issue when there was a need to encourage Americans and Congress to do more. That included climate change and environmental justice,” said Rep. Kathy CastorKatherine (Kathy) Anne CastorProgress toward managing rising seas US to exit Paris accord whether Trump or Biden wins Democrats see Green New Deal yielding gains despite GOP attacks MORE (D-Fla.), the select committee’s chairwoman.

After lying in state at the Capitol on Monday and Tuesday, Lewis will return to Atlanta, his adopted hometown, to wind down the nearly weeklong series of ceremonies honoring his legacy.

Lewis will lie in state in the Georgia Capitol on Wednesday so that people in the district that he served for 33 years can bid farewell. His funeral and burial in Atlanta is set for Thursday.

“We have sustained a great loss in America, a great loss in the Congress of the United States. He was called the ‘conscience of the Congress.’ He was the conscience of the country,” Hoyer said.