Hundreds turned out Saturday to honor the late Rep. John Lewis at a ceremony in his hometown of Troy, Alabama.
Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, died last week after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80.
Officials handed out roughly 800 tickets outside Troy University on a first-come, first-served basis, beginning at 8 a.m.
They held the ceremony against the long-standing advice of federal health officials not to hold large gatherings, although they did require all attendees to wear face masks inside the university’s arena, where the ceremony took place.
Lewis’ casket, draped with an American flag, stood at the front of the arena below a raised stage.
The university had an all-white student population during segregation and denied Lewis admission in 1957 only to award him an honorary doctorate 32 years later.
Somber mourners sat in folding chars 6 feet apart as a succession of speakers recounted Lewis’s life and achievements. The Lewis family attended and many also addressed the crowd.
“John Lewis would say he worked his lifetime to help others and make the world a better place to live,” Lewis’ brother, Henry, told the audience. “The John Lewis that I knew, the John Lewis that I want you to know about, is the John Lewis that would gravitate toward the least of us.”
Joining Henry Lewis on stage was Lewis’ great-nephew, Jackson Lewis, who called his uncle his “hero” and urged everyone to “keep his legacy alive.” After wrapping up his remarks, Jackson Lewis hopped off the stage — offering a bit of levity to the somber occasion.
Other family members recounted memories of Lewis’ childhood.
“I remember the day when John left home. Mother told him not to get in trouble and not to get in the way,” recalled Freddie Lewis, another brother. “But we all know that John got in trouble. Got in the way. but it was good trouble.”
Rosa Mae Tyner recalled her late brother’s religious devotion.
“His deep faith in God made him extraordinary. He was fearless by trusting in God because he was chosen. He lived with the never-ending desire to help others,” she said.
After the ceremony, Lewis’ casket was opened for a public viewing so attendees could pay their last respects before filing out of the arena.
Lewis was the youngest person to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King famously delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. King, an early mentor, called Lewis “the boy from Troy.”
In 1987, Lewis was elected to Congress, where he represented Georgia’s fifth district until his death.
The Troy memorial is the first of what will be six days of commemorations for the late congressman. On Sunday, his casket will be carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. In 1965, Lewis and other civil rights activists were beaten by state troopers as they attempted to cross. Many have called for the bridge to be renamed in his honor.
Lewis’ body also will lie at the Montgomery state capitol before traveling to Washington DC, where he will do the same at the US Capitol. His funeral will take place Thursday at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.