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Family tribute for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis held in Alabama

Family tribute for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis held in Alabama
Congressman John Lewis of Georgia died at the age of 80 on July 17. Lewis, a civil rights leader who preached nonviolence in the 1960's, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December of 2019. He is shown receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on February 15, 2011. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

July 25 (UPI) -- Remembrances kicked off Saturday in Troy, Ala., for the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, who died last week at age 80.

Lewis, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia's 5th Congressional District from 1987 until his death in 2020, was born and raised in Troy during the Jim Crow segregation era. He died from pancreatic cancer several months after revealing he was in Stage 4 of the disease.

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Saturday is the first of six days of gatherings honoring the civil rights icon and long-time congressman. Each day was given a theme, with Saturday's theme, "The Boy from Troy," as a nod to the nickname Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave him when he first met him as a teenager in 1958.

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The remembrances began early Saturday morning in his hometown and the day will end in Selma, the starting location of the historic 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. The day became known as "Bloody Sunday" after demonstrators were attacked by state troopers.

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The procession carrying Lewis' body departed Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home in Atlanta's West End where Lewis' casket rested next to civil rights champion C.T. Vivian for much of the week.

Five of Lewis' siblings and one of his nephews paid tribute at Troy University. Lewis was one of 10 children of sharecroppers Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis.

Brother Henry "Grant" Lewis said Lewis would "gravitate toward the least of us." He would feed the hungry on Thanksgiving Day, and he also dropped by his nephew's fifth grade class and surprised a student in Troy who portrayed Lewis in his Black history class.

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"He worked a lifetime to help others and made the world a better place in which to live," Grant Lewis said.

Grant Lewis added that he spoke with his brother the night before he died and he said he was "at peace and ready to meet the Lord."

The university's chancellor said the school's leadership conference will be renamed for Lewis.

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Lewis' niece Mary Lewis-Jones estimated there were more than 100 relatives at the memorial service inside Troy University's Trojan Arena.

"To come back here, and see Troy embrace him the way it has, really means a lot," Lewis-Jones said. "He was a congressman in the fields first ... Troy was his foundation. It's a special place for all of us."

A nephew, Edward Brewster, added "Troy was his heart," and he came back often.

Brewster also said that Lewis had an impact on everyone in the family, including his 7-year-old son, Jaxon Lewis Brewster, who just completed a school report on his great-uncle.

"He was our hero," Brewster said.

Pamela Lee, born two years before Lewis first crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge in his march from Selma to Montgomery, said she felt compelled to drive nearly 3 hours from Mariana, Fla., to attend the memorial service in Troy.

"I've got to be there," she said after hearing the news of his death. "I have a very big heart for freedom fighters. And John Lewis and Dr. King were true freedom fighters."

"His legacy is going to live on forever," Lee added.

In other highlights, Dottie Peoples performed the gospel song, "He's an On Time God," and encouraged people to get on their feet as the band started playing.

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"Today this is going to be the final dance with Dottie," Peoples said.

Members of his fraternity Phi Beta Sigma also honored him, a giant condolences card was signed, and guests sat in the Trojan Arena social distancing with masks during the memorial service.

Lewis, who was then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped lead the Selma-to-Montgomery march and suffered a skull fracture after state troopers beat him to the ground with a nightstick.

Six months after "Bloody Sunday," on July 26, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act and Lewis kept the pen the president used framed in his living room.

Lewis was one of the so-called Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, he was a keynote speaker at the March on Washington, the same event at which King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Troy Mayor Jason Reeves referred to Lewis as a "man of action."

A second memorial service was scheduled for 7 p.m. at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma.

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On Sunday morning, a procession from Brown Chapel will take place, making way to the Pettus bridge where Lewis will cross for the last time. The theme of the day: "Good Trouble."

Next week, Lewis will become the second African American to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. A special ceremony will be held honoring his life Monday afternoon.

Monday and Tuesday has been given the theme, "Conscience of the Congress." A private ceremony will be held at 2 p.m. inside the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and public viewing will be held on the East Plaza on Monday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

On Wednesday, Lewis's body reaches Atlanta, his final resting place. The theme is "Atlanta's Servant Leader." Lewis will lie in state at the Georgia Capitol Rotunda from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and again from 8 p.m. to 8 a.. the next morning.

Lewis' fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma, will host a special service at the Capitol at 7 p.m.

The six-day celebration will close with a private funeral Thursday at 11 a.m. at Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once led.

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Notable deaths of 2020

Richard "Dick" Thornburgh, former attorney general of the United States and former governor of Pennsylvania, takes a seat at the witness hearing after U.S. Chief Justice nominee Judge John Roberts testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on September 15, 2005. Thornburgh died on December 31 at age 88. Photo by Yuri Gripas/UPI | License Photo

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