It was a farewell rich with symbolism for the Civil Rights icon from his home state.

By Rebecca Angel Baer
July 27, 2020
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Credit: Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

In these divisive times, the nation is now collectively mourning Civil Rights icon, John Robert Lewis, who died last week after a battle with pancreatic cancer at age 80. Over several days, the Troy, Alabama-born man arrested dozens of times for getting into “good trouble,” is being given a hero’s farewell. Yesterday, ahead of today’s arrival at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Congressman Lewis took one last symbolic journey across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

That bridge, of course, was the site where on March 7, 1965, at the age of 25, Lewis as the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, walked alongside Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, leading a group that intended to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, speaking out for African American voting rights. However, that day forever marked in infamy as Bloody Sunday, did not go as planned. As the marchers approached the end of the bridge, they were met with force from Alabama State Troopers. Lewis was the first to take a blow from a billy club that cracked his skull. He recalled years later on CNN, “I gave a little blood on that bridge. I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death. I thought it was the last non-violent protest." But of course, he not only survived, but he continued to lead the efforts for voting rights and the events of Bloody Sunday would garner further support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which did pass and was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The horrible events that occurred on that bridge are forever linked to the remarkable legacy Lewis leaves behind as a hero, who never stopped seeking justice and equality for all people. For over thirty years, Lewis served as the US Representative for Georgia's 5th Congressional District where he continued to speak out against the unjust.

Lewis returned to that bridge many times to make that symbolic march again and again. On the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, he marched with President Obama. President Obama said of Lewis’s passing, “He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.” Many have followed his example and continue his fight, even children, as we recently learned about Tybre Faw, a young man from Tennessee, whose hero was not a movie star or a professional athlete. No, it was John Lewis.

WATCH: How John Lewis’ Friendship Changed One Little Boy’s Life

On the 55th anniversary, just this past March, when Lewis was already ailing from cancer, he marched again, arm in arm with Nancy Pelosi, singing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

It is, of course, fitting that in tribute, the body of the congressman, in a flag draped casket, was carried by horse drawn caisson on the same route that the march was intended to take that fateful day. After a service at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church on Sunday morning, Lewis’s casket was placed onto the back of the caisson. As the caisson reached the intersection of Water and Broad Streets, the foot of the bridge, the very place the marchers were met with brutal force, the horses were paused.  They then progressed to carry Lewis over the bridge one last time, along a route painted with red rose petals were where blood once stained that street. When Lewis’s body reached the top of the bridge, the carriage paused once more for a moment of silence. At the other side of the bridge, once again Lewis was met by Alabama State Troopers, but this time, standing in salute. You can watch video of Lewis’s last journey across the bridge below:

Lewis’s casket was then transferred again by military guard into a hearse for the rest of the trip to Montgomery. Lewis was then greeted by a somber Governor Kay Ivey, and given a place of honor as his body laid in repose until Monday morning when he was transferred again to complete this last trip to Washington. A procession of police led the hearse through the streets of the District where Lewis dutifully served the people of the 5th District of Georgia, as well as the entire nation for over three decades. The motorcade stopped on the newly minted Black Lives Matter Plaza, the location of Lewis’s last public appearance just weeks ago.

As the motorcade paused, Mayor Muriel Bowser presented the Lewis family with a plaque, before taking Lewis onward to the U.S. Capitol Building where he became the first Black lawmaker to lie in State in the Capitol Rotunda, one of the most distinguished spaces of American history.

Born to sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, Lewis stepped forward as one of the original Freedom Riders, an eventual leader of the Civil Rights Movement, became known as the “conscience of Congress,” and now leaves having achieved even in death, one more powerful first, this most high honor to lie in State. His legacy will continue to shine a light and a lesson for generations to come. He lived a life of service for which we are all eternally grateful.