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Civil rights icon John Lewis honoured in Alabama at 1st of several memorial services

Civil rights icon and longtime U.S. congressman John Lewis was remembered Saturday — in the rural Alabama county where his story began — as a humble man who sprang from his family's farm with a vision that "good trouble" could change the world.

U.S. congressman instrumental in galvanizing opposition to racial segregation

John Lewis, a U.S. Democratic congressman who represented the state of Georgia, participates in a ceremony in June 2010 to unveil two plaques recognizing the contributions of enslaved African Americans in the construction of the United States Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

Civil rights icon and longtime U.S. congressman John Lewis was remembered Saturday — in the rural Alabama county where his story began — as a humble man who sprang from his family's farm with a vision that "good trouble" could change the world.

The morning service in the city of Troy in rural Pike County was held at Troy University, where Lewis would often playfully remind the chancellor that he was denied admission in 1957 because he was Black and where, decades later, he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Lewis died July 17 at the age of 80.

Saturday morning's service was titled "The Boy from Troy," the nickname Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave Lewis at their first meeting in 1958 in Montgomery, Ala. King had sent the 18-year-old Lewis a round-trip bus ticket because Lewis was interested in trying to attend the then-all-white university in Troy, just 16 kilometres from his family's farm in Pike County.

It was the first of days of memorials and services.

On Sunday, his flag-draped casket is to be carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where the one-time "Freedom Rider" was among civil rights demonstrators beaten by state troopers in 1965. He also was to lie in repose at the state Capitol in Montgomery. After another memorial at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, where he will lie in state, funeral services will be held in Georgia.

Rev. Darryl Caldwell speaks in front of Lewis's casket as the late congressman lies in repose during a service celebrating his life and legacy at Troy University in Alabama on Saturday. Lewis died on July 17. (Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press)

'Keep his legacy alive'

At the Troy University service, his brothers and sisters recalled Lewis — who was called Robert at home — as a boy who practised preaching and singing gospel songs to the farm animals, and as a young man who left with a vision to change the world.

"I remember the day that John left home. Mother told him not to get in trouble, not to get in the way ... but we all know that John got in trouble, got in the way, but it was good trouble," his brother Samuel Lewis said.

"And the troubles that he got himself into would change the world."

Lewis's casket was in the university's arena, where attendees were seated spaced apart and masks were required for entry because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lewis, second from left, hold hands with his wife, Lillian, as they march with supporters following his win in a runoff election for Georgia's 5th Congressional District seat in Atlanta in September 1986. (Linda Schaeffer/The Associated Press)

"The John Lewis I want you to know is the John Lewis who would gravitate to the least of these," his brother Henry Grant Lewis said, a biblical reference to Jesus's instructions to aid those in need.

His brother said that on the day Lewis was sworn in to Congress, they exchanged a thumbs up. He later asked Lewis what he was thinking when they did. "He said, `I was thinking this is a long way from the cotton fields of Alabama,"' Henry Grant Lewis recalled.

Family members implored the crowd to continue Lewis's work. "He often told us if you see something wrong, do something," said his sister, Rosa Tyner.

Lewis's young great-nephew, Jaxon Lewis Brewster, spoke briefly, saying," Congressman Lewis was my uncle and my hero, and it's up to us to keep his legacy alive."

Those cotton fields were in then-segregated Pike County, where Lewis winced at the signs designating "whites only" locations.

Lewis, foreground, is hit by a state trooper during a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., in March 1965. He was 25 at the time and the attack left him with a fractured skull. (The Associated Press)

At his 1958 meeting with King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and civil rights lawyer Fred Gray, Lewis talked about the possibility of a lawsuit to try to integrate the university in Troy, Gray recently recalled. The lawsuit ultimately did not happen because of concerns about retaliation his parents would face in the majority-white county.

"The fire inside John to do something about segregation continued to burn," Gray said. "Even before he met Dr. King, he was interested in doing something about doing away with segregation. And he did it all his life."

Resistance to racism started young

Lewis was one of 10 children born into a sharecropping family. His parents saved enough money to buy their own farm, where the children worked the fields and tended the animals. A young Lewis was less fond of field work — often grousing about the gruelling task — but eagerly took on the job of tending the chickens while practising preaching.

In his autobiography, Walking with the Wind, he described how as a youngster, he longed to go to the county's public library but wasn't allowed because it was for whites only.

"Even an eight-year-old could see there was something terribly wrong about that," Lewis wrote.

Lewis, far right, locks arms with other civil rights leaders as they march to the courthouse in Montgomery, Ala., in March 1965. (The Associated Press)

He would eventually apply for a library card there, knowing he would be refused, in what he considered his first official act of resistance to racial apartheid.

In 1955, he heard a new voice on the radio. It was King, who was leading the Montgomery bus boycott about 80 kilometres away.

Lewis became a leader of the Freedom Riders, often facing violent and angry crowds, and was jailed dozens of times. In 1961, he was beaten after arriving at the same Montgomery station where he arrived three years earlier to meet King. In 1965, his skull was fractured on the bridge in Selma in the melee that became known as Bloody Sunday.

His parents and siblings watched the news footage of the Selma beatings, worried that he would become the next civil rights martyr.

The Troy public library now has a sign outside honouring Lewis. Students at the university he wasn't allowed to attend now study his life and work.

From left: Big Six civil rights leaders John Lewis, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer and Roy Wilkins are seen at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City in July 1963. (Harry Harris/The Associated Press)

Last year, Lewis announced he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.

Rosa Tyner, his sister, told The Associated Press that about a week before his death, she asked him about possibly seeing another doctor.

"He said, `No, I'm at peace. I'm at peace and I'm ready to go,"' she said.

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