In the rural Alabama county where he was born, civil rights leader and longtime Georgia congressman John Lewis was remembered on Saturday 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 Pike county was held at Troy University, where Lewis would often remind the chancellor that he was denied admission in 1957 because he was black, and where decades later he was awarded an honorary doctorate.
Saturday morning’s service was titled The Boy from Troy, the nickname the Rev Martin Luther King Jr gave Lewis at their first meeting, in Montgomery in 1958. King sent the 18-year-old Lewis a round-trip bus ticket because Lewis was interested in trying to attend what was then an all-white university in Troy, 10 miles from his family’s farm.
On Sunday, Lewis’s flag-draped casket will be carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where the one-time Freedom Rider was among marchers beaten by state troopers in 1965. He will also to lie in repose at the state capitol in Montgomery. After a memorial at the US Capitol in Washington, where he will lie in state, funeral services will be held in Georgia.
On Saturday, Lewis’s brothers and sisters recalled a boy who was called Robert at home and who practiced preaching and singing gospel songs to the farm animals.
“I remember the day that John left home,” Samuel Lewis said. “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. And the troubles that he got himself into would change the world.”
Lewis’s casket was in the university’s arena, where attendees were spaced apart with masks required for entry.
“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, referring to Jesus’ instructions to aid those in need. On the day Lewis was sworn in to Congress they exchanged a thumbs up, he said. He later asked Lewis what he was thinking.
“He said, ‘I was thinking this is a long way from the cotton fields of Alabama.’”
Lewis was one of 10 children in a sharecropping family. His parents saved enough money to buy a farm where the children worked the fields and tended the animals. Lewis was less fond of field work but eagerly took on the job of tending the chickens.
“He had a way of throwing them corn while he was preaching,” his younger sister Rosa Tyner remembered.
In his autobiography, Walking with the Wind, Lewis described how he longed to go the county public library but wasn’t allowed because it was for white people only.
“Even an eight-year-old could see there was something terribly wrong about that,” Lewis wrote. He would eventually apply for a library card, knowing he would be refused, in what he considered his first official act of resistance.
In 1955, he heard a new voice on the radio: King, who was leading the Montgomery bus boycott about 50 miles away. Lewis became a leader of the Freedom Riders, who rode buses in defiance of segregation rules and often faced violent and angry crowds. Lewis was jailed dozens of times. In 1961, he was beaten at the same Montgomery station where he arrived three years earlier to meet King. In 1965, his skull was fractured on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
His parents and siblings watched news footage of the Selma beatings, worried he would become the next civil rights martyr.
The Troy public library now has a sign honoring Lewis. Students at the university he wasn’t allowed to attend study his life and work.
Last year, he announced he had advanced pancreatic cancer. Tyner said that about a week before his death, she asked about seeing another doctor.
“He said, ‘No, I’m at peace. I’m at peace and I’m ready to go.’”