Rep. John Lewis, 'conscience of Congress,' makes final trip to Capitol

The "titan of the civil rights movement" is lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday and Tuesday.

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By Dareh Gregorian

Rep. John Lewis, the "conscience of Congress" who represented Georgia for more than three decades, made his final trip to the U.S. Capitol on Monday, lying in state in the building where his former colleagues said farewell to the civil rights giant.

A military honor guard carried Lewis' flag-draped casket up the stairs en route to the Capitol Rotunda, where the 80-year-old became the first Black lawmaker to lie in state.

"Under the dome of the U.S. Capitol, we have bid farewell to some of the greatest Americans in our history," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the assembled lawmakers, family and friends. "It is fitting that John Lewis join this pantheon of patriots resting upon the same catafalque as President Abraham Lincoln."

"John Lewis became a titan of the civil rights movement, and then the conscience of the Congress," Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "John was revered and beloved on both sides of the aisle, and on both sides of the Capitol. We knew that he always worked with the side of the angels, and now we know he is with them," she added.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also paid tribute to Lewis, saying, "Even though the world around him gave him every cause for bitterness, he stubbornly treated everyone with respect and love."

The most emotional moment came from Lewis himself. Pelosi played a five-minute audio clip of a 2014 commencement address the congressman delivered at Emory University in Atlanta, leading many attendees to well up with tears as his voice boomed throughout the Rotunda.

"We all live in the same house. And it doesn't matter whether we are Black or white, Latino, Asian Americans and Native American," Lewis' voice rang out. "It doesn't matter whether you're straight or gay. We are one people, we are one family, we all live in the same house. Be bold, be courageous, stand up, speak up, speak out, and find a way to create the beloved community, the beloved world, a world of peace, a world that recognizes the dignity of all humankind. Never become bitter. Never become hostile. Never hate. Live in peace. We’re one — one people and one love."

The attendees in the Rotunda gave Lewis' casket a standing ovation.

Mourners wore masks, with a good number of Congressional Black Caucus members wearing face coverings that said "good trouble" — the kind of trouble Lewis had spent his life advocating. "The action of Rosa Parks and the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble," Lewis said in a 2015 speech.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, paid his respects to Lewis later in the afternoon, accompanied by Pelosi and his wife, Jill Biden. Biden stood in front of Lewis' casket for several minutes, and at one point placed his hand on it and patted it. Biden and Lewis were longtime friends, and Lewis endorsed him for president in April.

Asked by NBC News on his way into the Rotunda what he thought Lewis' legacy would be, Biden said “I think his legacy is truth, honesty, and willing to fight for what’s right.”

Biden left speaking with Rep. Karen Bass of California, a top contender to be his running mate. Bass said “we only talked about one subject, the most important subject today, and that was the life of Mr. Lewis, how he impacted him — and he shared a couple stories with me — and how he impacted my life.”

Vice President Mike Pence, who had served with Lewis in the House, paid his respects with second lady Karen Pence shortly after Biden left. By that point, Lewis’ casket had been moved to the top of the Capitol steps for the public viewing — a coronavirus precaution.

One person not attending is President Donald Trump, who feuded with Lewis after he was elected. "No, I won’t be going," Trump told reporters Monday without elaborating on a reason.

Lewis died July 17 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. His body arrived at the Capitol after a procession through Washington, D.C., that included a stop at Black Lives Matter Plaza, a two-block stretch of 16th Street NW near the White House.

The longtime Georgia congressman, an advocate of nonviolent protest, was the last surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington. One of the original Freedom Riders, Lewis had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 in what became known as "Bloody Sunday."

The confrontation between the troopers and the nonviolent protesters led by Lewis helped spur passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Lewis' former colleagues in the House of Representatives paid tribute to that legacy Monday, renaming the revised voting rights act legislation they'd already passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act.

"John worked on the bill for seven years," Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., told NBC News, and urged the Senate to pass it.

Majority Whip Clyburn (D-SC) briefly took to the House floor to rename H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Act, after the late John R. Lewis. It passed by unanimous consent.

The measure has not been brought up by McConnell for a vote in the Senate, despite urging of Senate Democrats to do so after Lewis’ death.

The public viewing was scheduled for 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET Monday. On Tuesday, the public viewing will be from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET. Masks are required to enter the line, and social distancing will also be strictly enforced.

Lewis' memorial services have tracked his life. They began Saturday in Troy, Alabama, near where he was born. His body was then taken to Selma, where he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge a final time in a horse-drawn caisson Sunday before lying in state in the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery.

On Wednesday, his body will return to Georgia, the state he represented in Congress since the 1980s. Lewis will lie in state in the Georgia State Capitol until Thursday, when a private funeral is scheduled in Atlanta.

Mike Memoli contributed.