ATLANTA – John Lewis was lauded as a warrior and a hero during a ceremony Wednesday at the Georgia Capitol, where the civil rights icon who represented much of Atlanta in Congress will lie in repose before a funeral service that at least two former presidents are expected to attend.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Lewis called on “America to be America again,” referencing the poem in which Langston Hughes reproaches the country for not living up to its ideals.
“Until his last days, he was calling on America to be America again in his words and deeds,” she said, citing his visit to the Black Lives Matter street mural in Washington, D.C., as well as a videoconference he participated in with former President Barack Obama.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called Lewis a “beloved Georgian, an American hero and a friend to all who sought a better, fairer, more united society.”
“And even today, as our country faces a public health crisis and new challenges rooted in injustice, I know that the example left behind by Congressman Lewis ... will inspire all of us to do the hard necessary work to overcome our shared challenges and emerge stronger,” Kemp said.
Kemp presented the Lewis family with a folded Georgia state flag.
Among the other guests at the ceremony was Martin Luther King III, the son of the great civil rights leader who Lewis joined on the podium in the March on Washington.
King brought his 12-year-old daughter, Yolanda, saying her presence was an appropriate tribute to Lewis.
“Whenever he saw young people, he always made a bee line for them to encourage them. His entire career was about lifting up the next generation,” King said.
People lined the streets as the hearse carrying Lewis’ body moved through downtown. It stopped briefly in front of a mural of Lewis with the word “Hero" before arriving at the state Capitol, where it was met by Kemp and Bottoms.
Members of the public later filed into the state Capitol rotunda to pay their respects to Lewis, pausing to take photographs in front of his flag-draped coffin. It lay underneath a life-size portrait of former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.
Jeff Haynes and his wife Daniele brought their two young daughters, Ava and Nya.
Haynes, an Atlanta resident, said he felt a connection to Lewis in part because his family is of mixed race.
“Now, with the Black Lives Matter movement and the inequality situation, it’s almost symbolic that he would die at this time," he said. "It’s almost like he’s passing the torch.”
The funeral service in Atlanta is scheduled for Thursday, followed by a private burial.
Obama will be attending Lewis’ service and is expected to address mourners, according to a person familiar with the funeral arrangements who was not authorized to speak publicly. President George W. Bush’s office said the former president and first lady Laura Bush also will attend.
Bottoms recalled that Lewis' wife would visit her mother's salon and said she was deeply moved when the congressman's chief of staff told her a couple of days ago that Lewis was watching news of Atlanta and proud of its leadership.
Bottoms recently defied Kemp and required people to wear masks during the coronavirus outbreak, prompting a lawsuit from Kemp. The two have also clashed over the governor's decision to mobilize the National Guard in the city earlier this month after a weekend of gun violence left five people dead, including an 8-year-old girl.
Bottoms seemed to reference the fights in recalling Lewis' praise, echoing his signature advice to get into “good trouble.”
“And so, governor, when the good trouble continues, know that it is with the blessings of Congressman Lewis,” she said to applause.
Wednesday’s service is part of a series of public remembrances for Lewis that began over the weekend.
A memorial service at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Monday drew congressional leaders from both parties. Lewis was the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday, his flag-draped casket was carried down the Capitol steps and placed in a hearse as people watched solemnly, many with their hands on their hearts.
On Sunday, his casket was carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where the one-time “Freedom Rider” was among civil rights demonstrators beaten by state troopers in 1965.
Lewis, who spent more than three decades in Congress, died July 17 at the age of 80. Born to Alabama sharecroppers during Jim Crow segregation, he spoke ahead of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the nation’s first Black president in 2011.