WASHINGTON – In a solemn display of bipartisan unity, congressional leaders praised Democratic Rep. John Lewis as a moral force for the nation on Monday in a Capitol Rotunda memorial service rich with symbolism and punctuated by the booming, recorded voice of the late civil rights icon.
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.”
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” McConnell, a Republican, said, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “But that is never automatic. History only bent toward what’s right because people like John paid the price.”
Lewis died July 17 at the age of 80. Born to sharecroppers during Jim Crow segregation, 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.
Dozens of lawmakers looked on Monday as Lewis' flag-draped casket sat atop the catafalque built for President Abraham Lincoln. Several wiped away tears as the late congressman's voice echoed off the marble and gilded walls. Lewis was the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Rotunda.
“You must find a way to get in the way. You must find a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis intoned in a recorded commencement address he'd delivered in his hometown of Atlanta. “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.”
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore masks with the message “Good Trouble,” a nod to Lewis' signature advice and the COVID-19 pandemic that has made for unusual funeral arrangements.
The ceremony was the latest in a series of public remembrances. Pelosi, who counted Lewis as a close friend, met his casket earlier Monday at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, and Lewis' motorcade stopped at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House as it wound through Washington before arriving at the Capitol.