When John Lewis is mourned, revered and celebrated at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Thursday, he will return to a sacred place for many of those who helped to shape civil rights history.
The arc of Lewis’ legacy of activism will once again be tied to Ebenezer’s former pastor Martin Luther King Jr., whose sermons Lewis discovered while scanning the radio dial as a 15-year-old boy growing up in then-segregated Alabama.
King continued to inspire Lewis’ civil rights work for the next 65 years as he fought segregation during sometimes bloody marches, Greyhound bus “Freedom Rides” across the South and later during his long tenure in the U.S. Congress.
John Lewis died July 17th, at the age of 80.
Former President Barack Obama will be attending Thursday’s funeral and is expected to address mourners, according to a person familiar with the arrangements who was not authorized to speak publicly. President George W. Bush’s office said the former president and first lady Laura Bush also will attend.
More than an hour before the service was scheduled to begin, a few dozen people had already gathered outside Ebenezer. Many of them sat in lawn chairs in front of a large screen just outside the church doors waiting to watch the service.
“He was my hero,” Ebenezer’s senior pastor, The Rev. Raphael Warnock, said in an interview late Wednesday. “He laid it all on the line, at the risk of life and limb.”
“He read the Gospel, and he actually believed it – love your enemies,” added Warnock, who will officiate the funeral.
When Lewis was 15, he heard King’s sermons on WRMA, a radio station in Montgomery, Alabama, he recalled in an interview for the Southern Oral History Program.
“Later I saw him on many occasions in Nashville while I was in school between 1958 and ’61,” Lewis said. “In a sense, he was my leader.”
King was “the person who, more than any other, continued to influence my life, who made me who I was,” Lewis wrote in his 1998 autobiography, “Walking with the Wind.”
By the summer of 1963, Lewis was addressing thousands of people during the March on Washington, speaking shortly before King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He spoke then about Black people beaten by police and jailed – themes that resonate vividly in today’s times.
“My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution,” Lewis told the huge crowd on the Washington Mall.
“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient,” he added. “We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again.”
In 1965, Lewis was beaten by Alabama state troopers in the city of Selma in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Last Sunday, his casket was carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The wagon rolled over a carpet of rose petals on the bridge that spans the Alabama River. On the south side of the bridge, where Lewis was attacked by the law officers, family members placed red roses that the carriage rolled over, marking the spot where Lewis spilled his blood and suffered a head injury.
Lewis was later awarded the Medal of Freedom by the nation’s first Black president in 2011.
He spent more than three decades in Congress, and his district included most of Atlanta.
Shortly before he died, Lewis wrote an essay for The New York Times and asked that it be published on the day of his funeral. In the piece published Thursday, Lewis recalled the teachings of King:
“He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice,” Lewis wrote. “He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out.”
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe,” Lewis added. “In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”
Lewis was a member of Ebenezer, and “it was my honor to serve as pastor to John Lewis, a man of faith and a true American patriot who selflessly risked life and limb in the sacred cause of truth-telling and justice-making in the world,” Warnock said in a statement before the funeral.
“He was wounded for America’s transgressions, crushed for our iniquities and by his bruises we are healed,” Warnock added. “Today we weep. Tomorrow we continue the work of healing that was his life’s work.”