The body of Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader and Georgia politician, began its six-day journey in a celebration of life Saturday, with its first stops in Troy and Selma Alabama.
Lewis, 80, died on July 17 after a six-month battle with cancer.
JOHN LEWIS MEMORIAL: FAMILY RELEASES DETAILS OF 6-DAY CELEBRATION OF HIS LIFE
His casket, accompanied by a military honor guard, arrived draped in an American flag at Troy University ahead of “A Service Celebrating ‘The Boy from Troy'” on Saturday.
Troy Mayor Jason Reeves applauded Lewis’ strength at “confronting Alabama state troopers,” during his time as an activist during the Civil Rights movement.
“And now Alabama state troopers will lead his body around this state as we celebrate his life,” Reeves said.
The event, with speeches from five of his 10 siblings– his brothers, Henry “Grant,” Samuel and Freddie Lewis and sisters, Rosa Mae and Ethel Mae Tyner– and a rendition of “Hero,” from Sheila Jackson, paid homage to Lewis’ history in the city that set off his activism alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958.
It was over 60 years ago that Dr. King met with the then 18-year-old “boy from Troy” who had hopes of attending an all-white university.
The school — Troy University — is the campus to host the first of several proceedings for Lewis beginning Saturday.
“He worked a lifetime to help others and make the world a better place in which to live,” Grant Lewis said in his tribute. He shared a memory of when Lewis was sworn into Congress, saying that during the poignant moment, Lewis looked up at Grant and gave him a thumbs-up during the ceremony.
Afterward, Grant asked him, “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking this is a long way from the cotton fields of Alabama,” Lewis responded.
His young nephew infused the somber ceremony with laughter after delivering poignant words: “it’s up to keep his legacy alive” before jumping off the stage.
Lewis grew up in Pike County, Ala., and was an aspiring minister.
The son of sharecroppers, he worked alongside his siblings– who knew him as Robert– on his family’s land, tending the fields and animals. The young Lewis would preach to the chickens to practice his craft.
“He came from humble beginnings, always humble and respectful,” his sister Ethel Mae said.
In 2011, the humble congressman was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama for his fight against racial discrimination.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has worsened in Lewis’ home state of Alabama, the family has requested that everyone wear a face mask to prevent mourners and onlookers from spreading the virus.
Seats at the university service were spaced six feet apart to abide by social distancing rules.
“Get in good trouble, necessary trouble”
Lewis’s death comes amidst a national reckoning between law enforcement and their communities, as people all over the country protest against racial injustice facing Black and Hispanic people.
As an activist, Lewis himself was arrested and jailed dozens of times and attacked during periods of civil unrest.
At an event in March to commemorate the anniversary of the bloody upheaval between police and protesters in 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where Lewis and other demonstrators were beaten with clubs by state troopers, and his skull was fractured, Lewis famously said: “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America.”
The bridge will be another monumental stop Sunday on Lewis’ journey before his body lies in repose at the Alabama Capitol.
He will be flown to Washington, D.C. on Monday and his casket will make several stops throughout the city, including at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial near the National Mall. He will then lie in state at the U.S. Capitol, with a public viewing.
The honor to lay in the nation’s Capitol Rotunda has been given to more than 30 distinguished figures in American history, including and most recently the late Sen. John McCain and late Rep. Elijah Cummings.
Lewis will then be flown to Atlanta, where he will lie in state at the Georgia Capitol Wednesday, before his final internment on Thursday.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.