When civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis passed from cancer in July of 2020, he left behind a legacy of relentlessly working towards a more just country for all American citizens. It came as no surprise that his funeral attracted many who came not only to mourn his passing but to celebrate his extraordinary life.
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The COVID-19 pandemic did place some limitations on the John Lewis funeral, especially the number of people who could directly attend it. We’ll cover where and when Lewis’ funeral took place and the way various attendees used the opportunity to express their tremendous admiration for him.
John Lewis’ Funeral Service
Lewis’s funeral was a days-long memorial that spanned several states.
Location and date
Those arranging Lewis’ funeral saw fit to organize multiple memorial services in multiple locations before the actual funeral itself.
Troy University in Lewis’ hometown of Troy, Alabama, served as the location for the first Lewis memorial service. Ironically, when Lewis applied to Troy University (then Troy State College) as a young man, the school denied him admission because it was segregated.
Holding his first memorial service at the university that once refused to accept him due to the color of his skin served as a reminder of the changes he helped usher in over the course of several decades.
After the service at Troy University, Lewis’ memorial services moved to Selma, Alabama. Lewis was a 25-year-old activist when he marched with other civil rights demonstrators across the city's Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The service took place at Brown Chapel AME Church, where Lewis and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference frequently met while planning the historic march. In fact, the march from Selma to Montgomery began at that very church.
After the memorial services, as well as a period in which Lewis lay in state, Lewis’ funeral took place on July 30, 2020, at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was once the church of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Speeches, eulogies, and speakers
Several noteworthy figures delivered speeches and eulogies at Lewis’ funeral.
As the first African-American president in U.S. history, it was fitting that Obama spoke at the funeral of Lewis, who devoted much of his life to championing civil rights.
Obama praised Lewis for his contributions and made a point of reminding all in attendance that the work of people like Lewis isn’t yet done. He urged those listening to carry on Lewis’ legacy by voting.
Obama wasn’t the only former president to speak at Lewis’ funeral. Bill Clinton delivered a speech as well. He described Lewis as “a man, a friend, and sunshine in the storm,” and like Obama, he stated that Lewis had left the American people with “marching orders” to continue pursuing justice for all.
Former President George W. Bush also spoke at Lewis’ funeral. In his remarks, President Bush said, “We live in a better and nobler country today because of Lewis and his abiding faith in the power of God, the power of democracy and in the power of love to lift us all to a higher ground.”
Former president Jimmy Carter was unable to attend Lewis’ funeral in person. However, he sent a letter, which Rev. Raphael Warnock read aloud. Echoing the sentiments of other presidents who had spoken at the funeral, Carter’s letter stated that Lewis’ “enormous contribution will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.”
Civil rights leader Xernona Clayton, who introduced Lewis to the woman who would become his wife, also spoke. Clayton explained how she knew her friend, Lillian, was an intelligent and strong woman who deserved a partner who would treat her with respect and be an intellectual match. She stated that Lewis fit that description perfectly.
Jamila Thompson served as Lewis’ deputy chief of staff. At Lewis’ funeral, she said that when people asked her what Lewis is like in real life, her answer was, “He’s just as you may imagine, but better.”
Reverend James Lawson, Jr.
Reverend James Lawson, Jr. was one of Lewis’ most significant mentors. He asserted that “the only way to honor John Robert Lewis” is for lawmakers and presidents to continue devoting themselves to fighting for the rights of “every boy and every girl so that every baby born on these shores will have access to the tree of life.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered remarks at Lewis’ funeral, describing a man who wanted those who hadn’t been the victims of racism to not only see the importance of fighting it through the eyes of its victims but also to see that the best way to do so was through nonviolence, a value which Lewis devoted himself to throughout his life and career.
Reverend Dr. Bernice King
Reverend Dr. Bernice King is Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest child. At Lewis’ funeral, she said, “Death is not a period that ends this great sentence of life, but a comma which punctuates it to a lofty and higher significance.”
Only 240 people could attend Lewis’ funeral inside the church itself, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a crowd of nearly 100 gathered outside the church to honor Lewis. Along with those mentioned above, noteworthy attendees included Coretta Scott King and Laura Bush.
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John Lewis’ Burial and Gravesite
It’s highly likely Lewis’ grave will become one of the most famous graves. Visiting his grave is certainly an appropriate way to pay your respects and some had the opportunity to do so in an even more personal and moving way when Lewis was lying in state.
Lying in state
On July 27 and 28, Lewis lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The nation reserves lying in state as an honor for only the most distinguished members of the government, and Lewis was the first African-American lawmaker to be granted this honor. (Sometimes, a person who was not a government official can lie in honor, the civilian equivalent of lying in state. For instance, Rosa Parks lay in honor after her passing.)
When a former government official lies in state, members of the public have an opportunity to visit the body and pay their respects. Although there’s no official tally of exactly how many people went to see Lewis when he lay in state — at some points, the line was so long it stretched to the Supreme Court building several blocks away.
Lewis’ private burial took place at South View Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia, immediately after his funeral.
This is the same cemetery that once served as a burial site for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. until his body was moved to the King Center. It’s still the burial site for King’s parents.
The inscription on Lewis’ grave reads, “They walked where others had not gone.” Perhaps destined to one day be among the most famous headstone sayings, these words capture the spirit of Lewis, referencing not only the very literal steps he took for civil rights in the Selma march but also the symbolic steps he took to create a better world for future generations.
John Lewis’ Funeral: Honoring a Civil Rights Hero
Although many were saddened that Lewis was unable to join the ranks of cancer survivors, his funeral and memorial services didn’t dwell on that sadness.
Instead, they emphasized the way Lewis inspired countless Americans and the way in which his legacy will continue to inspire.
- Bote, Joshua. “Former President Bill Clinton at John Lewis' funeral: 'He was here on a mission'.” USA Today, Gannett, 30 July 2020, www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/07/30/bill-clinton-speaks-john-lewis-funeral-full-transcript/5544050002/
- Bote, Joshua. “Former President George W. Bush at John Lewis' funeral: 'He will live forever in the hearts of Americans'.” USA Today, Gannett, 30 July 2020, www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/07/30/george-w-bush-speaks-john-lewis-funeral-full-transcript/5544051002/
- Clark, Dartonurro. “Rep. John Lewis to lie in state at Capitol next week.” NBC News, NBC Universal, 23 July 2020, www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/late-rep-john-lewis-lie-state-capitol-next-week-n1234771
- Folley, Aris. “Jimmy Carter honors John Lewis: His contributions 'will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come'.” The Hill, Capitol Hill Publishing Corporation, 30 July 2020, thehill.com/homenews/house/509843-jimmy-carter-honors-john-lewis-his-contributions-will-continue-to-be-an
- Foran, Clare and Devan Cole. “In his eulogy, Obama connects Lewis' life work to political fights of today: 'America was built by John Lewises'.” CNN, Cable News Network, 30 July 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/07/30/politics/john-lewis-atlanta-obama-memorial-service-internment/index.html
- Foran, Clare. “John Lewis is first Black lawmaker to lie in state in US Capitol Rotunda.” CNN, Cable News Network, 27 July 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/07/27/politics/john-lewis-lies-in-state-capitol/index.html
- Maryland, Kimberly. “Alabama honors the legacy of John Lewis.” Alabama Newscenter, Southern Company, 27 July 2020, alabamanewscenter.com/2020/07/27/alabama-honors-the-legacy-of-john-lewis/
- Rojas, Rick. “Selma Helped Define John Lewis’s Life. In Death, He Returned One Last Time.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 28 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/07/26/us/selma-john-lewis-memorial.html
- Tensley, Brandon and Veronica Stracqualursi. “Breaking down the significance of John Lewis' funeral service.” CNN, Cable News Network, 31 July 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/07/31/politics/john-lewis-atlanta-funeral-service/index.html
- Torres, Ella and Libby Cathey. “John Lewis' funeral features overwhelming calls to vote.” ABC News, ABC News Internet Ventures, 30 July 2020, abcnews.go.com/Politics/obama-eulogize-late-rep-john-lewis-conscience-us/story?id=72055920
- “What is South-View Cemetery? Here’s the history John Lewis’ final resting place.” WSB-TV Atlanta, Cox Media Group, 31 July 2020, www.wsbtv.com/news/local/atlanta/what-is-south-view-cemetery-heres-history-where-john-lewis-is-buried/CSKPZVG6PFFJXKD3XKCOPKRP2I/