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 LewisBill Maher delivers mock eulogy for Trump Hillary Clinton touts student suspended over crowded hallway photo: 'John Lewis would be proud' Maxine Waters expresses confidence Biden will pick Black woman as VP 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. JohnsonFive takeaways as panel grills tech CEOs Lawmakers, public bid farewell to John Lewis Johnson presses Barr on reducing Roger Stone's recommended sentence 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 BidenTrump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore HuffPost reporter: Biden's VP shortlist doesn't suggest progressive economic policies Jill Biden says she plans to continue teaching if she becomes first lady 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 PelosiWhite House officials, Democrats spar over legality, substance of executive orders Sunday shows - Trump coronavirus executive orders reverberate Pelosi: 'Of course there's room for compromise' on 0-per-week unemployment benefit MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Coronavirus deal key to Republicans protecting Senate majority Coronavirus talks collapse as negotiators fail to reach deal MORE (R-Ky.).

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Negotiators 'far apart' as talks yield little ahead of deadline On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day 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 BarrGOP lawmaker calls for Justice Dept. to probe international court Barr pulls over to thank pro-police rally in Virginia Trump: Yates either lying or grossly incompetent 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 RichmondExperts warn mail-in voting misinformation could threaten elections One way we can honor John Lewis' legacy: Amend the 13th Amendment Lawmakers, public bid farewell to John Lewis 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 Devi HarrisHuffPost reporter: Biden's VP shortlist doesn't suggest progressive economic policies Hillary Clinton labels Trump coronavirus executive actions a 'stunt' Why Joe Biden needs Kamala Harris 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 CastorLawmakers, public bid farewell to John Lewis Economic recovery versus climate action: A false choice OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats chart course to 'solving the climate crisis' by 2050 | Commerce Department led 'flawed process' on Sharpiegate, watchdog finds | EPA to end policy suspending pollution monitoring by end of summer 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.