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 LewisProgressive groups ramp up pressure on Feinstein More than 70 companies call on Senate to pass voting right bill This Juneteenth, will Congress finally ensure Black freedom? 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.


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. JohnsonBlack Democrats press leaders for reparations vote this month Bottom line Schumer waiting for recommendation on Supreme Court expansion 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 BidenMilitary must better understand sexual assaults to combat them The Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population On The Money: Democrats make full-court press on expanded child tax credit | White House confident Congress will raise debt ceiling 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.


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 PelosiDemocrats make full-court press on expanded child tax credit Maria Bartiromo defends reporting: 'Keep trashing me, I'll keep telling the truth' Democratic clamor grows for select committee on Jan. 6 attack MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats go down to the wire with Manchin Schumer unloads on GOP over elections bill: 'How despicable of a man is Donald Trump?' This week: Senate set for voting rights fight MORE (R-Ky.).

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBiden signs Juneteenth bill: 'Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments' House passes political spending, climate change corporate disclosures bill House to vote Wednesday on making Juneteenth a federal holiday 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 BarrFederal judge rules Barr, other officials have qualified immunity from suit over Lafayette Square protests Lieu calls Catholic bishops 'hypocrites' for move to deny Biden communion The Hill's Morning Report - After high-stakes Biden-Putin summit, what now? 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 RichmondTrey Gowdy sets goal of avoiding ideological echo chamber with Fox News show The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden faces pressure amid infrastructure negotiations Buttigieg acknowledges 'daylight' between White House, GOP on infrastructure 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 HarrisWhat blue wave? A close look at Texas today tells of a different story A healthier planet and economy is worth fighting for Watch live: Harris gives remarks on the child tax credit 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 CastorOnline school raises new concerns about cyberbullying Democrats ask Facebook to abandon 'Instagram for kids' plans Hillicon Valley: Tech companies duke it out at Senate hearing | Seven House Republicans vow to reject donations from Big Tech 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.