U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, said he and other colleagues are mourning Lewis on both a professional and a personal front, making it all the more painful.
“As good as he was to the whole country, as significant as he was to American history, he was a better friend,” Kildee said.
Lewis hand-picked Kildee to cast his proxy votes under special coronavirus rules and as he underwent treatment for pancreatic cancer. Kildee, who on Monday still referred to Lewis in the present tense, says he considers it his privilege.
“There is no person more associated with the sacred right to vote in our lifetime than John Lewis,” he said. “To be able to execute his vote — to cast his vote for him — is an honor I will be able to keep with me until the day I die.”
Members of the House took time between routine votes Monday to honor Lewis. Members of Georgia’s congressional delegation stood as U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, now the delegation’s longest-serving member and “dean,” led off with remarks about Lewis.
“He inspired us as the conscience of the Congress, and we have all been truly blessed to know, love and share the life and legacy of this extraordinary human being,” the Albany Democrat said.
Bishop, who was first elected to Congress six years after Lewis, said their relationship went back to the 1960s. Bishop worked as an archivist at the King Center when it launched in 1968, and Lewis was among the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s lieutenants who stopped in to observe the work.
Their paths crossed again when Bishop served in the General Assembly during the same time Lewis was on the Atlanta City Council. Bishop, who was born in Mobile, Alabama., told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he and Lewis would often comment about how their political careers led them away from their home state: “We would say that Alabama named us, but Georgia claimed us.”
During the House tribute, Bishop shared the stage with U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, the delegation’s senior-most Republican. Graves recalled the day in 2013, his first as a member of Congress, when Lewis introduced him to the body.
“He honored me that day,” said Graves, a Republican from Ranger. “Afterward, he embraced me and then he stood by me as I put my hand up and took the oath of office. It is truly a privilege now for me to be able to stand before you and to honor him, not far from where he honored me, as we remember the life and the legacy of (a man) who is known as a gentle, gentle giant.”
Despite social-distancing rules meant to prevent members from congregating in the chamber, dozens of masked members stood in silence for a moment of reflection before breaking out in sustained applause.
House Reading Clerk Susan Cole’s voice cracked with emotion as she read the bereavement resolution into the record.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi told members earlier in the day that funeral arrangements for Lewis won’t be announced until later in the week out of respect for another leader in the civil rights movement who also died Friday, the Rev. C.T. Vivian. Vivian’s funeral is scheduled for Thursday.
Lewis’ family can request that his body lie in state at the U.S. Capitol, although the complex has been closed to visitors since March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Senate also paid tribute to Lewis with speeches Monday from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. McConnell, a Republican, said Lewis was an inspiring figure even if they disagreed on policy, and that he had left a legacy that will affect generations.
“Our society has only marched toward justice because great figures like Congressman John Lewis took it upon themselves to lead the way,” McConnell said. “So the nation mourns his passing, and we celebrate the life of this American hero.”