WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. John Lewis is the first African-American to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, an honor bestowed upon the man who colleagues regarded as “the conscience of the Congress.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke briefly during an hourlong memorial service Monday attended by members of Lewis’ family, invited members of the U.S. House and Senate and staff. But she turned over the microphone to Lewis himself, playing audio of his keynote address at Emory University’s 2014 commencement.
“You must find a way to get in the way,” Lewis’ voice bellowed from loud speakers. “You must find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
The events in Washington mark days three and four of a six-day “celebration of life” in Lewis’ honor. The Atlanta Democrat served in the House for nearly 34 years after serving decades in the civil rights movement; he died July 17 at age 80.
President Donald Trump told reporters Monday he would not make the trip to the Capitol to pay respects to Lewis. The two had an antagonistic relationship, and Lewis considered Trump an illegitimate president.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill were among the final guests to approach the casket while it rested in the Rotunda. They saluted Lewis and made the sign of the cross. After chatting with Pelosi, Biden walked up to the casket and laid one hand on the flag draped top.
Earlier in the day, Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue spoke fondly about Lewis, who he described as “kind” and having a “sweet demeanor.” Perdue said he first learned about Lewis’ civil rights work as a child and was honored to call him a colleague. His death leaves a void that will be impossible to fill, he said.
“His life will be remembered as one of integrity and courage, and it’s just a hole,” he said. “Nobody will replace John Lewis. We’ll fill the seat, and we’ll move on. But he was just one of a kind.”
During the memorial ceremony, House and Senate leaders placed identical wreaths with red, white and blue flowers. Audience members dabbed their eyes as Wintley Phipps sang a solemn rendition of “Amazing Grace,” followed by “It Is Well With My Soul.”
Upon arriving in the Washington area Monday morning from Alabama, Lewis’ casket was driven by hearse from Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility along a route that included landmarks such as Black Lives Matter Plaza, where Lewis made his final public appearance; the Lincoln Memorial where he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963; and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which Lewis dedicated years to creating and building.
Around 6 p.m. Lewis’ casket was moved outside to the Capitol’s East Plaza Steps for a public viewing, a change in location compelled by the coronavirus pandemic that closed the building to visitors. The public visitation will continue on Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Lewis will be moved to Atlanta Wednesday, where he will lie in state at the Georgia Capitol. His funeral will be Thursday morning at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.