Congressional leaders praised Representative John Lewis as a moral force for the nation on Monday in a Capitol Rotunda memorial service that included the booming, recorded voice of the late civil rights leader.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Lewis the “conscience of the Congress” who was “revered and beloved on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the Capitol.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell praised the longtime Georgia congressman as a model of courage and a “peacemaker.”
Lewis died July 17 at the age of 80. He was beaten by Alabama state troopers during the civil rights movement, spoke ahead of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington and was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the nation’s first black president in 2011.
Several lawmakers wiped away tears as the late congressman’s voice echoed off the marble walls.
“You must find a way to get in the way. You must find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis said in a recorded commencement address he’d delivered in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. “Use what you have … to help make our country and make our world a better place, where no one will be left out or left behind. ... It is your time.”
The ceremony was the latest of several public remembrances. Pelosi, who counted Lewis as a close friend, met his casket earlier Monday at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, and Lewis’s motorcade stopped at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House as it wound through Washington before arriving at the Capitol.
Pelosi noted that Lewis, frail with cancer, had come to the newly painted plaza weeks ago to stand “in solidarity” amid nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.
Born near Troy, Alabama, Lewis was among the original Freedom Riders, young activists who boarded commercial passenger buses and traveled through the segregated South in the early 1960s. They were assaulted and battered at many stops, by citizens and authorities. Lewis was the youngest and last-living of those who spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington.
Lewis was beaten by Alabama state troopers as he and hundreds of others attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, in a march to demand voting rights. That day, known as Bloody Sunday, forged much of Lewis’s public identity.
The marchers completed the journey weeks later under the protection of federal authorities, but then-Alabama Governor George Wallace, an outspoken segregationist at the time, refused to meet the marchers when they arrived at the Capitol. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6 of that year.
Lewis spoke of those critical months for the rest of his life as he championed voting rights as the foundation of democracy, and he returned to Selma many times for commemorations at the site where authorities had brutalized him and others.
“The vote is precious. It is almost sacred,” he said again and again. “It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy.”
Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the last time Sunday on a horse-drawn carriage before an automobile hearse transported him to the Alabama State House, where he lay in repose. He was escorted by Alabama state troopers, this time with black officers in their ranks, and his casket stood down the hall from the office where Wallace had peered out of his window at the citizens he refused to meet.
After the memorial in Washington, Lewis’s body will return to Georgia. He will have a private funeral Thursday at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, which King once led.