WASHINGTON – Mourners braved both coronavirus fears and brutal heat on Tuesday to pay their respects to the late Rep. John Lewis, the first Black lawmaker to lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda.
The crowds were thin and lines nonexistent, partially because of high temperatures. But those who came said it was important to personally honor a civil rights icon who died just as America was confronting another national reckoning over entrenched racial iniquities.
“He was worth the virus risk and worth every drop of sweat,” said Alicia Patterson, 66, who came from Maryland with three generations of her family to observe Lewis’ flag-draped casket. “He worked hard for all of us, and he deserved this and more.”
Lewis died July 17 of cancer at the age of 80. The long-serving Georgia congressman took part in Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 2011 by Barack Obama and is the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
With almost no lines Tuesday afternoon, dozens of visitors were able to linger and take pictures outside the Capitol. Many brought umbrellas to block the summer sun. The specter of the COVID-19 pandemic hung over all aspects of the mourning. In addition to face coverings, which were declared mandatory outdoors by Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, yellow dots on the grounds reminded mourners to stand 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart.
Instead of a guest book to write in, mourners could scan a code on their phones and write messages in a virtual condolence book. The casket itself was at the top of the steps on the east side of the Capitol building, while mourners were restricted to the bottom of the steps.
“I just felt I had to come and pay my respects,” said Phillip Estes, a 53-year old urban planner and D.C. resident. “It’s a generational passing, and it feels really important now with the country’s renewed interest in advancing racial equality and social justice.”
Born near Troy, Alabama, Lewis was among the original Freedom Riders, a group of young activists who boarded commercial passenger buses and traveled through the segregated Jim Crow South. They were assaulted and battered at many stops along the way, by citizens and authorities alike. Lewis was the youngest and last-living of those who spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington.
“He was there for the beginning of it all,” said Jay Stegall, a 33-year old American University graduate student and Atlanta native who came with his two sisters and his 4-year-old daughter. “I thought it was important for them to see this.”
One of Lewis’ final public appearances was a June 7 visit to the corner of 16th and H streets in front of the White House. The intersection, which was the epicenter of several days of clashes and protests over police brutality and systemic racism, had just been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza by Bowser.
“That was a really amazing and poetic moment,” Stegall said. “I think it was important that he lived to see a resurgence of what he started. Now it’s time to finish it.”
When Lewis’ casket arrived Monday at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, the motorcade stopped at Black Lives Matter Plaza as it wound through Washington before arriving at the Capitol.
Notably absent was President Donald Trump, who also skipped Monday’s emotional ceremony honoring Lewis. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, paid their respects on Monday, but Trump said he would not attend. The pair had an openly adversarial relationship: Trump called Lewis’ Atlanta congressional district “crime-infested” while Lewis frequently criticized Trump’s racially divisive tactics, and once questioned his legitimacy as president.
Several mourners said Trump was not missed.
“It wouldn’t have been authentic. It would just have been another photo op for him,” Stegall said. “He definitely wouldn’t have understood the meaning of the moment.”