Civil rights pioneer, Congressman John Lewis honored in Capitol Hill ceremony

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The flag-draped coffin bearing the body of longtime U.S. Representative John Lewis was escorted on Monday to the Capitol where it will lie in state through Tuesday in a tribute to his life-long dedication to civil rights.

Before arriving on Capitol Hill, the hearse carrying Lewis passed by Washington landmarks important to the American civil rights movement - the Lincoln Memorial and the nearby Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial.

As the motorcade wound its way through the city, it slowed at a painted yellow mural on a street pavement near the White House that reads “Black Lives Matter” in letters large enough to be seen from space, honoring the social movement of that name.

A bystander was heard playing the hymn “Amazing Grace” on the harmonica.

The congressional arrival ceremony was held in the historic Rotunda of the Capitol. Former Vice President Joe Biden, running to unseat President Donald Trump in November’s elections, was expected to pay his respects later in the day.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed Lewis as “a titan of the civil rights movement and then the conscience of the United States Congress.”

Referring to Lewis’ civil rights fight, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “John Lewis lived and worked with urgency because the task was urgent.”

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But it was Lewis’ own words he delivered in a 2014 Emory University commencement address in Atlanta which were broadcast, heightening the drama and emotion of the ceremony.

Urging the graduates to dedicate their lives to “good trouble” to advance social justice, Lewis said, “Be bold, be courageous, stand up, speak up, speak out and find a way to create the beloved community, the beloved world, the world of peace, a world that will recognize the dignity of all humankind.”

A Democratic member of Congress from Atlanta since 1987, Lewis endured numerous beatings and arrests in his lifelong fight against segregation and for racial justice. He died on July 17 of pancreatic cancer at age 80.

Lewis’ death came at a time of reckoning across the United State over racial injustice, with widespread and largely peaceful protests condemning unequal police treatment of Black Americans and institutions removing or renaming tributes to former leaders of the pro-slavery Confederacy.

The public school district in Fairfax County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, last week voted to rename the Robert E. Lee High School after Lewis. Lee was the commanding general of the Confederate army in the U.S. Civil War.

Due to concerns over the coronavirus, the public viewing will be held outdoors on the East Front Steps of the Capitol and social distancing was being strictly enforced.

Lewis was savagely beaten during the “Bloody Sunday” march across Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.

Writing by Scott Malone and Richard Cowan; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Richard Chang