After six days of national mourning and celebrations of his life in Alabama, Washington, D.C., and Georgia, John Lewis was laid to rest on Thursday, July 30, 2020, article available here. At Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's Ebenezer Baptist Church, John Lewis's last words resounded over a funeral marked by three former presidents and civil rights giants. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke with respect, love, and admiration for the esteemed Congressman and civil rights hero, affectionately calling him "the boy from Troy" and "the conscience of the Congress." President Obama then eulogized one of the men who made him possible.
President Obama spoke of John Lewis's bravery at Selma—and in the Freedom Rides, and in the Nashville sit-ins—and how the Alabama state troopers, some of whom nearly beat Lewis to death at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, might have thought they'd won at the end of the first day. That they'd pushed back the tide of history and preserved for themselves the order of things. But then another day came. It seemed an allegory for our times, when, as ever, the relentless movement to make this country live up to its founding values is "hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed."
Mr. Lewis's personal history paralleled that of the civil rights movement. He was among the original 13 Freedom Riders, the group of activists who challenged segregated interstate travel in the South in 1961. He was a founder and early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which coordinated lunch-counter sit-ins. He helped organize the March on Washington, where Dr. King was the main speaker, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. At 23, Lewis was the youngest, and last surviving speaker who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Mr. Lewis led demonstrations against racially segregated restrooms, hotels, restaurants, public parks and swimming pools, and he rose up against other indignities of second-class citizenship. At nearly every turn he was beaten, spat upon, burned with cigarettes, physically beaten and arrested by law enforcement.
On March 7, 1965, John Lewis led one of the most famous marches in American history, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday. In the vanguard of 600 people demanding the voting rights they had been denied, Mr. Lewis marched partway across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, into a waiting phalanx of state troopers in riot gear. Ordered to disperse, the protesters silently stood their ground. The troopers responded with tear gas and bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. A state trooper cracked Mr. Lewis's skull with a billy club, knocking him to the ground, then hit him again when he tried to get up. Televised images of the beatings of Mr. Lewis and scores of others outraged the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson presented to a joint session of Congress eight days later. A milestone in the struggle for civil rights, the law struck down the literacy tests that Black people had been compelled to take before they could register to vote and replaced segregationist voting registrars with federal registrars to ensure that Black people were no longer denied the ballot.
"We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar to cast a ballot," Obama added, "but even as we sit here there are those in power that are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting." One of Lewis's last acts was going to see the new Black Lives Matter Plaza, in Washington, D.C. Americans honor the legacy of the civil rights giant by engaging in the "good trouble" that leads to a more perfect democracy in the face of powerful institutions that seek to oppress.
Hours before the funeral began, The New York Times published an essay written by Lewis shortly before he died. He wanted it to be published on the day of his funeral. "While my time here has come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me," he wrote in response to the recent protests nationally and abroad sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, who were all Black.
"You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society," he wrote. "Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity." He ended his essay by writing, "Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe."
May the Honorable John Robert Lewis Rest in Peace.