John Lewis crosses Edmund Pettus Bridge for final time

7/26/20 - Selma, AL - The caisson carrying the body of Rep. John Lewis approaches the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, during the second of six days of tributes for the late Rep. John Lewis that will take place in Alabama, Georgia and Washington, D.C.  Lewis’ body will cross the bridge in a horse-drawn caisson. He’ll be met on the other side by family members and Alabama state troopers, a poignant reminder of just how much America has changed since “Bloody Sunday.”  Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

7/26/20 - Selma, AL - The caisson carrying the body of Rep. John Lewis approaches the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, during the second of six days of tributes for the late Rep. John Lewis that will take place in Alabama, Georgia and Washington, D.C. Lewis’ body will cross the bridge in a horse-drawn caisson. He’ll be met on the other side by family members and Alabama state troopers, a poignant reminder of just how much America has changed since “Bloody Sunday.” Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

SELMA, Ala. – The Edmund Pettus Bridge, with its imposing gray steel archway, played host to a blood-soaked turning point in the civil rights movement on March 7, 1965. Leading the way was a 25-year-old activist in a tan trench coat who nearly died that day from the blow of an Alabama state trooper’s billy club.

Today that activist, the late Georgia congressman John Lewis, said goodbye to the site for the final time.

At 11:53 a.m., Lewis’ body crossed the bridge, which was sprinkled with red rose petals to represent the blood previously spilled there, in a horse-drawn caisson. He was met on the other side by family members and Alabama state troopers, a poignant reminder of just how much America has changed since “Bloody Sunday.”

From there, Lewis set out on one last pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery, where he’ll lie in state in the Alabama Capitol.

The vehicle carrying Congressman Lewis followed the route of the famous 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and arrived at approximately 2:20 p.m. EDT. A private, receiving ceremony with Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and other state officials took place ahead of a public viewing from 4:00 – 8:00 p.m. EDT.

Follow along here for our on-the-ground coverage in Selma and Montgomery:

3:35 p.m. Tomorrow the Lewis remembrances shift to Washington, D.C., where the theme is “The Conscience of the Congress.”

Monday’s only event is at 2 p.m., a special ceremony in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Since the Capitol is closed to the public due to COVID-19, Lewis will lie in state on the East Front steps of the U.S. Capitol between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Monday and 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. on Tuesday.

Lewis is the second-ever African American to lie in state on Capitol Hill.

3:30 p.m. We’re beginning to wrap up for the day. At 4 p.m., the public will be able to pay its respects to Lewis in the Alabama Capitol.

Later this evening, the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center announced plans to shine blue and purple lights onto its civil rights memorial in Montgomery in Lewis’ honor. (Blue being the color of Lewis’ fraternity and purple of pancreatic cancer awareness.)

Lewis’ family has requested that the congressman’s supporters show their support for him by tying blue and purple ribbons at home rather than traveling for his remembrances due to COVID-19.

2:35 p.m. Outside the Capitol, a few hundred people were already lined up in the heat for their chance to pay respects. The viewing won’t begin until 4 p.m. EDT. Across the way, a woman played the drums and sang spirituals. Other folks gathered in a grassy area near a stage with big block letters that spelled out “VOTE.”

Dr. Linda Hampton and her friends were among the first in line for Lewis viewing at the Alabama Capitol.

“This man should be honored in every city and state in America,” she said, “for what he did not only for our people but for the world.”

2:30 p.m. Eight members of a military guard wearing black facemasks set Lewis’ flag-draped coffin in a lobby lined with senior state officials, including Gov. Kay Ivey, Congresswoman Terri Sewell and U.S. Sen. Doug Jones.

Flower arrangements of the Alabama and American flags were placed in front of the coffin as military members saluted.

State officials are now, one by one, paying their respects.

2:20 p.m. Lewis’ hearse has arrived at the Alabama statehouse in Montgomery. His coffin is being taken inside for a brief receiving ceremony.

12:30 p.m. On the far side of the bridge, family members led the crowd of a few hundred in hushed versions of hymns like “We Shall Overcome” as a military honor guard escorted Lewis’ casket past saluting Alabama State Troopers.

Aside from the intermittent singing, the crowd was largely silent, broiling in the heat and humidity and rapt by the moment’s magnitude.

Lewis’ casket was placed into a hearse, which taxied in the road for several minutes while the larger procession assembled. A few dozen folks ventured up close.

”I felt relief,” Shelia Cain of Atlanta said. She cried. “Home at last, home at last, thank God almighty he’s home at last.”

12:15 p.m. Lewis’ casket will now be transported via hearse down U.S. 80 Highway to Alabama’s state capitol in Montgomery.

Before arriving, Lewis’ hearse will drive through the streets of Montgomery. Stops includes the nearby Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor, and the Rosa Parks Museum.

It’s the same route that civil rights leaders took in March 1965 when they marched from Selma to Montgomery after Bloody Sunday. Learn more here.

Some House Democrats plan to file a bill to rename this stretch of U.S. 80 between Selma & Montgomery after Lewis.

In Montgomery, there will be a short wreath-laying ceremony with Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and more dignitaries. He will then lie in state from 3-8 p.m Central time.

12:05 p.m. The procession across the bridge took exactly nine minutes and was nothing short of breathtaking.

The caisson departed from downtown Selma at 11:53 a.m as the sun peeked through thick clouds. Law enforcement saluted and onlookers cheered. One woman shouted “I love you, friend.” Others yelled “good trouble” and thanked him:

The crowd fell silent as Lewis approached the apex of the bridge beneath the awning that bears its name. The driver of the caisson, Darrell Watkins, stood up, removed his top hat and held it to his heart as the carriage waited there for a moment.

The caisson was then met by Lewis’ six siblings and son, who donned “good trouble” t-shirts and masks and began following the carriage.

On the other end, they approached a saluting honor guard, which included Alabama state troopers, as well as members of Lewis’ extended family and the media.

11:50 a.m. We included these details in yesterday’s live blog, but they’re just as relevant today. Atlanta’s Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home is handling Lewis’ funeral arrangements. Our colleague Ernie Suggs profiled Watkins in a memorable front-page story last week.

The West End funeral home is where Lewis’ casket has rested next to that of civil rights contemporary C.T. Vivian for much of the week. The top hats are a Willie Watkins signature.

11:50 a.m. John Lewis’ family came across the bridge first, loaded into cars and buses. They were driven along the right-hand lanes. The roses that Lewis’ caisson will cross are in the left lanes.

We don’t hear a lot about Lewis’ family. They were ever-present throughout his career, but often in the shadows. His brothers, sisters, nieces & nephews accompanied him to award ceremonies and events where they rubbed elbows with presidents and dignitaries. His son, John-Miles, was by his side until the very end.

But they generally avoided the spotlight.

11:40 a.m. Here’s a closer look at the caisson:

11:30 a.m. A horse-drawn caisson bearing John Lewis’s casket has begun the trip from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Hundreds of people have lined the streets of downtown Selma.

11:15 a.m. The formal program ahead of Lewis’ bridge crossing has concluded. We now wait for his horse-drawn caisson. Below. Videographer Ryon Horne captured a woman singing as the Edmund Pettus Bridge is prepared for John Lewis’ final crossing.

Credit: Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com

11:10 a.m. AJC photographer Alyssa Pointer captured this image earlier this morning of the preparations on the Edmund Pettus bridge:

11:10 a.m. U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., Alabama’s first Black congresswoman who grew up in Selma and served with Lewis in the U.S. House, thanked Lewis’ family for “sharing him over and over again” with America.

“Our nation is better off because of John Robert Lewis. My life is better. Selma is better. This nation and this world are better because of John Robert Lewis,” she said.

Lewis’ final march across the bridge, she said, is much different from the first. It “speaks to the legacy that he leaves behind and the lives he has changed."

“It’s poetic justice that this time Alabama state troopers will see John to his safety,” not beat him, she said.

11:00 a.m. Friends and family of the late congressman are gathering outside the church. Several are wearing “good trouble” t-shirts, a nod to Lewis’ description of his civil rights activism.

10:55 a.m. There have been growing calls in recent weeks to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in honor of Lewis. More than a half-million people have signed an online petition backing the idea, including Congressman James Clyburn, D-S.C., and “Selma” movie director Ava DuVernay.

But, as the Associated Press recently reported, the idea is being met with some resistance in Selma:

“Some say renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the Georgia congressman who died Friday would dishonor local activists who spent years advocating for civil rights before Lewis arrived in town in the 1960s. Others fear tourism would be hurt if the Pettus name — which is known worldwide yet belonged to a white supremacist — were gone.”

The bridge was dedicated in 1940, named after a white supremacist who fought for the Confederacy and was a reputed Ku Klux Klan leader.

Any decision would need to be approved by Alabama’s Republican-controlled Legislature, and the body is unlikely to do anything without the support of local leaders.

10:45 a.m. The horses that will carry Lewis across the bridge in a caisson have arrived at Brown Chapel:

10:40 a.m. State Sen. Nikema Williams, the head of the Democratic Party of Georgia who was recently selected to take Lewis’ place on the November ballot, is on hand in Selma to watch the proceedings.

Williams has described Lewis her mentor, and her husband Leslie Small once worked as an aide to Lewis. Read our profile of Williams here.

10:30 a.m. In our 10 a.m. post, we included a photo of Selma’s monument to John Lewis. Here’s the story behind that monument.

10:20 a.m. Selma, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge specifically, played a pivotal role in Lewis’ life and the civil rights movement as a whole.

On March 7, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King chose Lewis and Hosea Williams to lead more than 600 demonstrators over the bridge, marching from Selma to Montgomery to draw attention to voting rights.

They didn’t make it very far. Our colleague Ernie Suggs recounted the scene in his excellent story about Lewis’ multiple roles in the movement:

On the day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday,” Alabama State Troopers met the marchers and ordered them to disperse. As Lewis and the others stopped to pray, the police discharged tear gas, and troopers on horses and foot charged the demonstrators, beating them with nightsticks. Images of Lewis, wearing a tan trench coat and backpack, being beaten and trampled, became iconic. A trooper fractured his skull, and he later said he thought he was going to die there.

In his 1998 autobiography “Walking With the Wind,” Lewis recounted that the group “had no chance to turn and retreat” on the bridge:

“I remember how vivid the sounds were as the troopers rushed toward us — the clunk of the troopers’ heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the white onlookers, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves hitting the hard asphalt of the highway, the voice of a woman shouting, ‘Get ‘em!’”

Read more: Rep. John Lewis remembers Selma, 51 years later

Bloody Sunday was a turning point for the nation.

White Americans, who had largely turned their cheeks to the struggles of African Americans, were forced to pay attention – on the evening of March 7, ABC’s airing of the movie “Judgment at Nuremberg” was interrupted by a special news report with footage of white police officers brutally beating Lewis and his colleagues.

On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would introduce legislation guaranteeing African Americans full voting rights.

Selma also changed Lewis, as the AJC noted in its obituary for the congressman. He later recalled of that day: “Something was born in Selma during the course of that year, but something died there, too. The road to nonviolence had essentially run out. Selma was the last act,” he said.

10 a.m. It’s a warm, humid morning in Selma, with blue skies and thin streaks of clouds. The crowds are steadily beginning to build on both sides of the bridge.

Florist Anthony Jones and his assistant were near Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church preparing baskets of red rose petals for the funeral procession. They are being scattered on the bridge and represent the blood shed there.

A sign to rename the bridge in John Lewis’ honor rested next to a nearby memorial:

9:45 a.m. Lewis’ last public appearance at the bridge was in March to commemorate the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

As our colleague Tia Mitchell noted in her story at the time, Lewis’ participation was in doubt because he was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, but he decided to attend to stress the importance of voting in this year’s presidential election:

Hoisted on the shoulders of two men, U.S. Rep. John Lewis addressed the throng gathered at the top of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday afternoon.

People of all ages craned their necks for a glimpse of one of the last living civil rights leaders, who 55 years ago led the march here that left him unconscious and bloodied but also sparked passage of the Voting Rights Act.

...“We cannot give up now, we cannot give in,” Lewis told the cheering crowd. “We must keep the faith. Keep the eyes on the prize. We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before.”

SELMA, ALABAMA - MARCH 01:  Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) is held aloft by Rev. Al Sharpton and others as he speaks to the crowd at the Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing reenactment marking the 55th anniversary of Selma's Bloody Sunday on March 1, 2020 in Selma, Alabama. Mr. Lewis marched for civil rights across the bridge 55 years ago. Some of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates attended the Selma bridge crossing jubilee ahead of Super Tuesday. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Credit: Joe Raedle

icon to expand image

Credit: Joe Raedle

9:30 a.m. Well-wishers are beginning to assemble near the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

One is 57-year-old Patrice Houston, who made the trek from Atlanta:

9:20 a.m. This is the second of six days of tributes that will take place in Alabama, Georgia and Washington, D.C. Catch up on our live coverage from yesterday’s events in Troy, Ala. and Selma here and our summary that ran on the front page of today’s newspaper here.

9 a.m. The day begins at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, where Lewis’ body laid in repose last night.

Members of the armed forces will place Lewis’ casket on a horse-drawn caisson at 11 a.m. EDT. Then begins a brief ceremony featuring remarks from Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-Ala.; a prayer from Otis Culliver, senior pastor of Selma’s Historic Tabernacle Baptist Church; and a rendition of the gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” by Kristen Glover.

The caisson will travel the roughly six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and cross it solo, providing what will likely be the most iconic images from the six days of Lewis memorials.

On the other side, Lewis will be saluted by Alabama state troopers and his coffin transferred to a hearse by members of the armed forces.

The hearse will travel along Highway 80 and through the streets of Montgomery, passing the Rosa Parks Museum, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and other landmarks before arriving at the Alabama State Capitol between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. EDT.

There will then be a private wreath laying ceremony featuring Gov. Kay Ivey, Lewis’ family and members of Alabama’s congressional delegation. The public will have another chance to pay its respects to Lewis between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. local time in the statehouse.