Alabama service kicks off days of tribute to US rights icon John Lewis

Pallbearers carry the casket holding John Lewis during The Boy From Troy service celebrating his life in Troy, Alabama. PHOTO: AFP
People pay their respects as John Lewis lies in repose at Troy University's Trojan Arena in Troy, Alabama. PHOTO: REUTERS
A child wearing a face mask sits among people paying their respects to late US Congressman John Lewis. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A memorial service in Alabama on Saturday (July 25) for John Lewis kicked off days of tributes to the revered civil rights leader and congressman, including the high honour of lying in state on Monday in the Rotunda of the US Capitol.

Lewis, the senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a man known as the "conscience of the Congress," died of cancer on July 17, aged 80.

At a service on Saturday in an arena at Troy University in Alabama, the state of his birth, his surviving siblings and others paid tribute.

Sister Ethel Mae Tyner recalled the days long ago when family members worked together in the cotton fields near Troy and storm clouds would pass over.

Young John Lewis was fearful of storms but would not budge.

"He would start singing - and preaching. He always was a fighter," she said.

In keeping with coronavirus precautions, the number of visitors to the arena was limited to 800, social distancing was enforced and masks required - a far cry from pre-coronavirus practices, when a memorial for an icon like Lewis would have drawn many thousands from across the country.

While attending segregated schools in Alabama, Lewis was inspired by the peaceful protests of rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr and he eventually rose to join their ranks.

Since 1987, he had represented a Georgia district in Congress.

After the ceremony Saturday in Troy, commemorations were to move to Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama for a private remembrance followed by a public viewing - again with coronavirus precautions - starting at 8pm.

On Sunday at 10am, a processional will escort Lewis' casket from Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

It was there that Lewis, during an historic 1965 civil rights march that came to be known as "Bloody Sunday," had his skull fractured by police, one of many times he suffered such beatings.

On Sunday afternoon, events move to the city of Montgomery, where the public has been encouraged to line sidewalks as the processional travels to the State Capitol.

Lewis will lie in state there beginning at 3pm, according to local media. Visitors will be required to wear masks.

On Monday, Lewis will lie in state in the Rotunda of the US Capitol for viewing, initially, by a small, invitation-only group.

The casket will then be moved to the top of the steps at the Capitol's East Front for public viewing Monday evening and all day Tuesday, according to the Washington Post. Masks and social distancing will be required.

Out of concern for the pandemic, the Lewis family has asked that people not travel from across the country to pay respects, and instead post virtual tributes.

The week of solemn commemorations will end on Thursday in Atlanta, Georgia, where Lewis will be laid to rest after a private service in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King once preached.

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