Selma says its final goodbye to Rep. John Lewis

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

Family and hometown of Troy, Ala., pay tribute to civil rights icon John Lewis at Troy University on Saturday, July 25, 2020. (Ryon Horne and Tyson Horne / AJC)

Tributes to the late Congressman John Lewis kicked off Saturday in Alabama, where the civil rights icon got his start.

The remembrances began in Troy, the small Alabama city about 200 miles southwest of Atlanta where Lewis was born and raised. The day ended in Selma, the site of one of the bloodiest – and most important – moments of the civil rights movement in which Lewis played a central role.

Remembering John Lewis: Full coverage from the AJC

Lewis, 80, died July 17 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Here’s our story summarizing the morning service.

Read our recap of the entire day:

8:30 p.m. The service has ended. Lewis’ body is lying in repose in the chapel until midnight eastern.

Tomorrow at 11 a.m. we’re expecting the most climactic moment of the six days of Lewis tributes. That’s when Lewis, escorted by only a military honor guard, will cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge for the final time.

From there his body will be taken to Montgomery before lying in state in the Alabama State Capitol for the rest of the afternoon.

The AJC will have reporters stationed in Selma and Montgomery. Check ajc.com throughout the day for updates.

8:20 p.m. One of the evening’s more emotional tributes came from U.S. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., Alabama’s first Black congresswoman who served with Lewis in the U.S. House.

“Growing up here in Selma, Ala., the story of John Lewis was as familiar to me as any Bible story or family lore,” she said. “John was a larger-than-life hero. It’s rare in life that you get the opportunity to meet your hero, let alone befriend your hero.”

Sewell said people must continue Lewis’ work fighting for justice and equality.

Speaking after her, Martin Luther King, III urged Congress to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act and name it “The John Lewis Restoration Voting Rights Act.”

“Voter suppression should be a thing of the past,” he said.

8:15 p.m. Under dark skies, a small group of people quietly lined up, all wearing masks, outside Brown Chapel AME Church to pay their respects to Lewis.

Roosevelt Shannon, 65, was 10 years old when a young John Lewis led hundreds of marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and was brutally attacked by state troopers.

”I had wanted to go but my mom wouldn’t let me,” said Shannon, sitting in a camping chair. “She said I was too young.”

As he watched footage of the violence on his family’s small black-and-white television of John Lewis getting beaten, his skull fractured, Shannon dissolved into tears.

”I just kept thinking: Why would they treat us like this?” he recounted

Over the years, Shannon said Lewis has been a constant source of inspiration.

”He fought for equality to the very end,” said Shannon, who lives about an hour from Selma.

“And there has been change but we still have a long way to go.”

Shannon said he wanted to participate in the memorial events in Selma to honor Lewis. ”John Lewis is my hero. I want to see him.”

He planned to drive home after the viewing and return early Sunday for the final crossing over the bridge.

7:50 p.m. As our colleague Tia Mitchell notes, tonight’s service is emphasizing Lewis’ activism and those who fought alongside - or right after - him. Three civil rights soldiers just finished speaking.

The first, Sheyann Webb-Christburg, lauded Lewis for his humility and authenticity. At 9 years old, she was one of the youngest protesters to participate in Bloody Sunday.

“To me, then as a child, and over the 53 years that I had come to know and cross paths with him and be in his midst, he was always the same common man,” she said. “He would always find time to give attention, especially to young people.”

Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, whose mother was killed by the Ku Klux Klan for supporting voting rights, said Lewis had attended her mother’s funeral when she was a young girl but had never mentioned it to her over the years that followed.

“That’s who John is. He wasn’t there for John. He was there for my mother, me and my family,” said Lilleboe, who said she hoped she could return the favor.

7:30 p.m. Speaking early in the evening program, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., said Lewis’ legacy is being honored by the young people who have taken to the streets in recent months to protest racial inequality in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

“Like him, they’re protesting peacefully, nonviolently. They love this nation just as much as John. President Trump paints them all with a wrong brush. He calls them lawless thugs. But he is wrong,” Jones said, prompting applause from the crowd. “They’re patriots who want America to move forward to a nation of equals, together.”

7:20 p.m. As we mentioned in our 8 a.m. post, Selma’s Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church played a significant role in the civil rights movement:

The church was where roughly 600 civil rights protesters, including a 25-year-old Lewis, gathered on the morning of March 7, 1965 for a planned march to Montgomery in defiance of a protest ban from then-Gov. George Wallace.

It was six blocks away, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama State Troopers advanced on the protesters, fracturing Lewis’ skull and gravely injuring many others. The brutality of the moment, captured by television cameras, galvanized a nation that had largely ignored the plight of Black Americans and paved the way for Congress’ passage of the Voting Rights Act months later.

7:05 p.m. Several local political leaders are scheduled to speak during tonight’s service at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, including U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-Ala., and Selma Mayor Darrio Melton.

The evening will also feature speeches from several civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King III, Sheyann Webb-Christburg and Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, and performances by American Idol winner and Alabama native Ruben Studdard and Selma’s Jerneral T. Bell

6:55 p.m. Under a drizzling rain, Lewis’ hearse has arrived in Selma. A small group of onlookers and several journalists met the car outside of Brown Chapel AME Church.

One of those people was Gwen Denish, who left home at 2:30 p.m. to be there for the event:

6:30 p.m. Read our write-up of today’s morning service here.

1 p.m. Things are slowing down at Trojan Arena, where members of the public have two more hours to pay their respects to Lewis.

A second memorial service will begin at 7 p.m. at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, and we’ll pick up coverage from there. See more details about the service and the church’s significance in our 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. posts below.

12:40 p.m. Family members made up a good portion of the crowd inside Trojan Arena. Lewis’ niece Mary Lewis-Jones estimated there were more than 100 relatives at the memorial service.

”To come back here, and see Troy embrace him the way it has, really means a lot,” said Lewis-Jones, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale.

”Troy was his heart,” said Edward Brewster, one of Lewis’ nephews. He came back often, Brewster said, and was close with the family.

Brewster’s 7-year-old son, Jaxon Lewis Brewster, just finished a school report on his great uncle.

Edward Brewster said Lewis had an impact on the lives of everyone in the family. Jaxon knew all about his great uncle’s accomplishments by the time he was 2 years old, Brewster said.

”They’d go on long walks together, just talking,” Brewster said. “He was our hero.”

Troy, said Lewis-Jones, was where her uncle became the John Lewis remembered around the world.

”He was a congressman in the fields first,” she said. “Troy was his foundation. It’s a special place for all of us.”

12:25 p.m. The AJC asked readers to share their at-home tributes to Lewis. Here’s a look:

12:05 p.m. There isn’t much social distancing in the line of mourners waiting to pay their respects to Lewis, though everyone is required to wear a mask.

As the procession began, mourners were serenaded by Dottie Peoples singing “I’m Going to be with my Lord.”

12 p.m. The flag-draped casket of John Lewis is being prepared for public viewing. Event organizers asked attendees - including news crews - to turn off their cameras before the casket was opened.

Hundreds of people are wrapping around the floor of the arena to pay their respects. They will have three hours to do so before Lewis is taken to Selma.

11:55 a.m. Gospel great Dottie Peoples helped close out the service. After experiencing some technical difficulties with her CD not playing, she told the band to start playing in E-flat and sang “To God Be the Glory.” She brought down the house.

11:50 a.m. The AJC has several photographers on the ground in Alabama. Check out their work here.

We’ve also compiled social media reactions to the memorial services here.

11:45 a.m. Five of Lewis’ siblings and one of his nephews paid tribute at Troy University. (Lewis was one of 10 children of sharecroppers Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis.)

Brother Henry “Grant” Lewis said the congressman would “gravitate toward the least of us.” He’d feed the hungry and homeless on Thanksgiving Day, drop by his nephew’s 5th grade class and surprised a young man in Troy who portrayed Lewis in his Black history class.

“He worked a lifetime to help others and made the world a better place in which to live,” Grant said.

Grant said he spoke with his brother the night before his death and said he was “at peace and ready to meet the Lord.”

Ethel Mae Tyner, Lewis’ sister, said he was “always humble and respectful to others” and began preaching about justice and equality at a young boy working in his parents’ cotton fields.

11:30 a.m. Pamela Lee felt compelled to drive nearly three hours, alone, from Mariana, Florida, to attend the memorial service in Troy.

“I’ve got to be there,” she said to herself after hearing the news about Lewis’ death. “I have a very big heart for freedom fighters. And John Lewis and Dr. King were true freedom fighters.”

Lee, born two years before Lewis first crossed the Edmund Pettus in his march from Selma to Montgomery, thought of her grandparents, who lived in Alabama their whole lives, as she waited for the service to begin.

“His legacy is going to live on forever,” she said.

11:20 a.m. Jason Reeves, the mayor of Troy, called Lewis a “man of action.” He noted that Lewis, who was badly beaten by Alabama State Troopers on Bloody Sunday in 1965, will now be carried around the state by Alabama State Troopers in honor in the days ahead.

Reeves noted the acting director of the state troopers is now a black man, Col. Charles Ward.

“He is the colonel of the Alabama State Troopers not because of the color of his skin, but because of the content of his character and the ability that he has,” he said. “That’s what John Lewis did for Troy, for Pike County, for the United States and for the world.”

Earlier in the service, Troy University’s chancellor said the school’s leadership conference will be renamed for Lewis.

11:10 a.m. Right off the bat, it’s evident how much the coronavirus is shaping today’s events.

Social distancing was in order at the Trojan Arena. On the floor, people sat six feet apart in folding chairs. VIP’s were spread out in permanent seats adjoining the stage. The Lewis estate released 800 tickets for the public, but so far it appears that only a few hundred people have decided to attend.

Behind the podium, members of the band wore black facemasks.

11:00 a.m. Mourners walking into Trojan Arena had a chance to sign an oversized greeting card, brought to Troy by Atlantan Bruce W. Griggs.

“I owe him so much. We all owe him so much,” said Griggs, who first met Lewis in 1995.

”He contacted me!” said Griggs, who runs a program for at-risk youth. The congressman offered to help him with fundraising efforts. But he did more than just offer a check or a tour of his Congressional office.

”I remember one event we had he was sucking BBQ meat off the bone right there with the kids,” Griggs said. “They don’t make ‘em like him anymore.”

Griggs said he plans to take the card to Washington, D.C., where the civil rights icon will lie in state this week.

Losing his friend and mentor “doesn’t hurt that bad,” he said.”He lived a full life, helping people until the very end,” Griggs said. “You can’t keep people forever.”

10:45 a.m. Military pallbearers carry Lewis’ flag-draped coffin into Troy University’s Trojan Arena:

10:15 a.m. Members of the Lewis family have arrived at Troy University’s Trojan Arena, the site of this morning’s gathering, and the hearse is arriving now. It left Atlanta from the Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home around 6 a.m. (See 8:30 a.m. post.)

10 a.m. As we mentioned earlier, the theme of today’s events, “The Boy From Troy,” is a nod to the nickname Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the teenaged Lewis when they first in 1958. My colleagues Ernie Suggs and Tia Mitchell detailed that first encounter in their excellent story about Lewis’ Alabama roots. Here’s a taste:

“So you are John Lewis? The boy from Troy,” Martin Luther King Jr. said upon meeting the teenager who would become one of the civil rights movement’s most famous, vocal and long-lived members.

It was 1958 and Lewis, only 18, raw, young, impassioned and feeling called to do something for the movement, had just walked down the paneled stairs of First Baptist Church in Montgomery, to find the rising leader sitting with the church’s pastor, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.

King had invited him after receiving a letter from Lewis asking for his help to integrate an Alabama college (Troy State University). The 145-pound Lewis had spent the entire 51-mile bus ride rehearsing what he was going to say at the meeting that proved to be a key step in launching him on the path of non-violent resistance and activism that put him on a national and international stage.

9 a.m. - We’ll talk more about this later, but the coronavirus is having a major impact on the tributes to Lewis. Crowd sizes are being limited at many of the memorials, including this morning’s gathering at Troy University, and other events are closed entirely to the public because of COVID-19. Masks and social distancing are being requested at all indoor and outdoor events.

The Lewis family is urging supporters to instead watch the proceedings online and pay tribute on social media using the hashtags #BelovedCommunity or #HumanDignity or at www.theJohnLewisLegacy.com.

Read more: John Lewis: Man of the people

Supporters can also celebrate Lewis’ life by tying a blue a purple ribbon on their front doors or in their front yards. Blue is the color of Lewis’ fraternity; purple is the ribbon color for pancreatic cancer.

The AJC is interested in seeing how you’re paying tribute to Lewis at home. Please share your photos at AJC-SocialTeam@ajc.com.

Here is how the U.S. Congress paid its respects on Monday. Lawmakers will have other chances early next week, when Lewis will become the second African American to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. Members will hold a special ceremony honoring his life on Monday afternoon.

8:30 a.m. - The first official event begins at 11 a.m. eastern, but the first moves of the day happened hours ago.

Before 6:30 a.m., the procession carrying Lewis’ body departed Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home in Atlanta’s West End.

As our colleague Ernie Suggs reported in a memorable front-page story on Thursday, the funeral home is where Lewis’ casket has rested next to that of civil rights contemporary C.T. Vivian for much of the week.

Vivian and Lewis met each other 60 years ago when they were both members of the Nashville Student Movement. In 1963, they were arrested together and sent to one of the most notoriously violent prisons in Mississippi for using a “whites only” bathroom. They were each brutally beaten in Selma a month apart in 1965 while trying to bring attention to the plight of disenfranchised African Americans, Suggs noted. And last week they died within hours of one another.

While participating in the Freedom Rides, C.T. Vivian was arrested in Mississippi. Convicted, he was shipped to the notorious Parchman Prison.
Family Photo

Credit: HANDOUT

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Credit: HANDOUT

8 a.m. - The locations of Saturday’s events are steeped in symbolism from Lewis’ life.

The first memorial service is being held at Troy University, the hometown school that helped spark Lewis’ civil rights activism.

In the late 1950s, the teenaged Lewis applied to the all-white public university, then known as Troy State, joining African American students around the country who were organizing to force the question of the “Brown vs. Board of Education” ruling.

Lewis never heard back from Troy State, but the silence is what inspired him to reach out to an inspiring preacher he’d heard on the radio: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Years later, the university awarded Lewis an honorary degree.)

Later on Saturday, proceedings will pick up at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, the national historic landmark that played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

The church was where roughly 600 civil rights protesters, including a 25-year-old Lewis, gathered on the morning of March 7, 1965 for a planned march to Montgomery in defiance of a protest ban from then-Gov. George Wallace.

It was six blocks away, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama State Troopers advanced on the protesters, fracturing Lewis’ skull and gravely injuring many others. The brutality of the moment, captured by television cameras, galvanized a nation that had largely ignored the plight of Black Americans and paved the way for Congress’ passage of the Voting Rights Act months later.

Original post - 7 a.m.

Lewis’ remarkable life is being celebrated in grand fashion: nearly a week of public and private events in five cities. His body will lie in state in three capitol buildings, including the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

But the most dramatic images are likely to come Sunday, when a military honor guard will accompany Lewis across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge for the final time. It’s the same site where Lewis nearly lost his life 55 years ago on what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and where he subsequently brought presidents and bipartisan political leaders to learn about the civil rights movement. (You can view the full schedule of events here.)

Saturday’s memorials are centered around Lewis’ early years. The theme is “The Boy From Troy,” a nod to the nickname Lewis’ friend and mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bestowed upon the-then 18-year-old when they first met in 1958.

Read more: John Lewis, a life rooted deep in Alabama soil

The day’s official events begin at 11 a.m. EDT with a service in an arena at Troy University. Several of Lewis’ siblings are slated to pay tribute during the ceremony, as is gospel artist Dottie Peoples and a host of Baptist leaders.

Lewis’ body will then lie in repose through 3 p.m. EDT before traveling to Selma.

There local political and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King III and U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., will reflect on Lewis’ life and teachings during a private evening service at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. Following the event, the public can pay its respects at the church.

On AJC: Read and sign the online guestbook for Congressman John Lewis

Read more: Man of the people: Everyday people share stories of meeting John Lewis at stores, airports, in the community