TROY, Ala. — In the coming days, John Lewis will be brought to the halls of power. He will lie in state in the Capitol in Washington as well as in the statehouses in Alabama and Georgia. He will be mourned by lawmakers and governors and the many other influential figures he came to know during more than 30 years in Congress.
But before all that, he came home.
“You know now, when I look at all the accolades, the pictures I see all the time, I think about where he came from,” Ethel Mae Tyner, Lewis’ sister, said of her brother, the Georgia congressman and civil rights leader, during a memorial service Saturday in Troy, Alabama, the small town where he grew up on a farm raising cotton.
His brothers and sisters shared their pride in seeing how Lewis, who died July 17 at the age of 80, ascended and in the work he did along the way. But while the world knew Lewis the activist and congressman, his family sought to memorialize the brother they called Robert, his middle name, used only by those closest to him.
Robert, they said, was the boy who wanted to be a pastor and preached to the chickens on the farm. Robert was afraid of thunder and lightning, dashing inside whenever storm clouds would fill the sky. They saw Robert grow into the man who, as Lewis always put it, looked to stir “good trouble.”
His brother Samuel Lewis remembered when he left home. “Mother told him not to get in trouble, not to get in the way,” he recalled. “We all know that John got in trouble, got in the way, but it was a good trouble.”
The memorial service, which drew a crowd to the campus of Troy University, was the start of a series of tributes that mirrored John Lewis’ path through life. It began Saturday with a final journey to his home state of Alabama, and on Sunday, his body will be carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he helped lead the demonstrators beaten down by authorities as they marched on March 7, 1965.
He will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol on Monday and Tuesday, and on Wednesday, he will be brought to the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta. On Thursday, his funeral will be held in Ebenezer Baptist Church, a sanctuary in Atlanta with deep ties to the civil rights movement, as it had been the home of Martin Luther King Jr.
On Saturday, the crowd in Troy, a city of roughly 19,000 people southeast of Montgomery, was most likely smaller than it would have been had the coronavirus not been a factor. His family asked people to not travel long distances to come. Still, there was a robust assembly, which formed a line wrapping around the floor of the arena.
Bruce Griggs came from Atlanta with what he declared to be the world’s biggest sympathy card, standing 8 feet tall. He called people over as they walked inside, asking them to sign it. He would be driving the card to Selma, then Washington and back to Atlanta.
He had made similar cards for George Floyd and Secoriea Turner, the 8-year-old girl who was recently killed in Atlanta near the same site where Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot by police in June, spurring protests in the city.
This was different. “I didn’t know George Floyd,” he said. “I didn’t know Secoriea. This is personal.”
Griggs said that he had known the congressman since 1995 and that Lewis had gone out of his way to support the young men who participated in a mentoring program Griggs runs.
As one person after the next came up to sign, he pointed out the message that stuck out to him the most, which was written in the form of a poem:
Time to come home, dear brother
Your tour of duty through
You’ve given as much as anyone
Could be expected to do.
“Now God has taken home another soldier, the last of the soldiers,” Griggs said.
A roster of pastors and local officials were among the speakers.
“I have frankly never felt more unworthy to be in front of a microphone,” Jason Reeves, Troy’s mayor, said during the memorial service.
He said that he had seen some of Lewis’ academic records, where a teacher wrote that he “appears shy but verbally says he is going on to school to be somebody.”
“I thought about that word, ‘be,’ and how ‘be’ is not only a linking verb, it’s an action verb,” he said. “I think about all the actions he had taken and the example he had been and the courage that it took to do those things.”
Lewis’ family also recalled a caring brother who regularly called to check in, calls they welcomed even if they came late at night.
The night before he died, in the last conversations he had with some of them, he asked about his nieces and nephews.
“To my brother Robert,” Tyner, his sister, said, “this is not a goodbye. It’s just a different kind of hello. Rest well, Robert. Rest well.”