Alabama honors the legacy of John Lewis

Alabama honors the legacy of John Lewis
A horse drawn carriage carrying the body of civil rights icon, former US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge on July 26, 2020 in Selma. On the second of six days of ceremonies, Lewis's funeral procession continues to follow the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail on its way to the State Capitol where he will lie in state. On March 7, 1965 Lewis and other civil rights leaders were attacked by Alabama State Police while marching across the bridge in support of voting rights for African Americans. The day would come to be known as "Bloody Sunday". (Lynsey Weatherspoon/Getty Images)

Over the weekend, Alabama began the almost weeklong celebration of the life and legacy of U.S. Rep John Lewis, who died July 17 after battling pancreatic cancer for several months.

Remembrance of the civil rights icon began in Lewis’ home state. The series of events will conclude in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill and Georgia, the state he represented in Congress for the past three decades.

On Saturday, two services were held in Lewis’ honor. The first ceremony was on the campus of Troy University in his hometown of Troy. Mourners, including Chancellor Jack Hawkins, reminisced about their hometown hero and reflected on the beginnings of the man who the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as the “boy from Troy” after their first meeting in 1958 when Lewis was 18 years old. It was the beginning of the mentor/mentee relationship between King and Lewis that would change Lewis’ life. The chance meeting came after Lewis was refused admission into what was then Troy State College, at that time, a segregated institution. Hawkins reflected on the impact of that 1957 admission denial, but noted Troy State University in 1989 “had the good sense to award him an honorary doctorate.”

Saturday evening brought more recollections of Lewis’ life’s work in Selma, the city that helped to cement his destiny. Held at Brown Chapel AME Church, a house of worship that played a major role as meeting place of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) when the organization planned the Selma to Montgomery march. The church was the starting point of the march on March 7, 1965 that led to what is known as “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama State Troopers descended on marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lawmen beat the 25-year-old Lewis and fractured his skull, one of dozens of injuries inflicted on the marchers who were forced back into Selma in the ill-fated attempt to walk to Montgomery.

“We are all here today because we joined his (Lewis’) fight for justice,” Alabama U.S. Sen. Doug Jones said. “We joined because it’s the right thing to do but also we joined because John showed us the way. He showed us the way by his courage, his determination and his love.”

Sunday, Alabama’s formal remembrance of Lewis’ life began with emotional and symbolic tributes starting in Selma and ending in Montgomery. In Selma, hundreds stood along downtown streets to witness a horse-drawn carriage transporting Lewis’ casket for a final crossing of the Pettus Bridge. The bridge was covered with rose petals as the body of Lewis was escorted by Alabama State Troopers to Montgomery, where Lewis would lie in state for four hours.

Gov. Kay Ivey, who on Friday ordered flags to be flown at half-staff to honor Lewis, met the casket at the Capitol, where more people gathered to honor Lewis. Thousands waited in sweltering heat and rain to pay their respects and witness the historic moment.

King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, was one of many who gave tributes to a man she grew up affectionally calling “Uncle John.” She encouraged Congress to restore and expand the Voting Rights Act and name it after Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, the civil rights icon who died the same day as Lewis.

Troy University senior Khadidah Stone understood she would not be where she is today if not for the sacrifices of Lewis.

“If it had not been for John Lewis paving the way and, in the case of Lee vs. Macon County Board of Education, I would not have been able to (attend Troy University),” Stone said.

Lee vs. Macon County Board of Education was a key civil rights court case that sought to integrate all-white Tuskegee High School in 1963. The lawsuit was later expanded to include all of Alabama’s primary, secondary and post-secondary schools, including public universities.

Lewis’ casket will lie in state in Washington, D.C., at the Capitol and then the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta, according to the schedule set by the Lewis family. A final memorial service will be Thursday at the iconic Ebenezer Baptist Church with burial to follow.

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