John Lewis hailed as ‘conscience’ of Congress in Capitol Rotunda ceremony

WASHINGTON  — In a solemn display of bipartisan unity, congressional leaders praised the late Democratic Rep. John Lewis as a moral force for the nation on Monday in a Capitol Rotunda ceremony 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, Lewis 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, Barack Obama, in 2011.

Dozens of lawmakers looked on Monday, several wiping tears, as Lewis’ flag-draped casket sat atop the catafalque built for President Abraham Lincoln and 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 declared in an Emory University commencement address in 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 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.

Following the Rotunda service, Lewis’ body was moved to the steps on the Capitol’s east side for a public viewing, an unusual sequence required because the pandemic has closed the Capitol to the public.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who served in Congress alongside Lewis, was expected to pay his respects. The pair became friends over their two decades on Capitol Hill together and Biden’s two terms as vice president to President Obama.

Notably absent from the ceremonies was President Trump. Lewis once called Trump an illegitimate president and chided him for stoking racial discord. Trump countered by blasting Lewis’ Atlanta congressional district as “crime-infested.” Trump said he would not go to the Capitol. Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to pay his respects later Monday.

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