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John Lewis, Sharecroppers' Son, Is Given A Heroes Sendoff In Alabama


The honors for the late John Lewis suggest how far he came in his life and also how far his country came. Lewis was once a civil rights protester beaten by Alabama police for demanding the right to vote. In later years, he not only voted but won election to Congress. He will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol beginning today. On Sunday, he was honored in his native state of Alabama at the scene of violence on a different Sunday 55 years ago. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The celebration of John Lewis' life started in the town of Troy, where the onetime-all-white university that denied him entrance as a teen hosted his memorial service. Then it was Selma's turn to honor the man who came back every year to re-enact the historic 1965 Voting Rights March where he and others were brutally beaten by state troopers and sheriff's deputies on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.


TERRI SEWELL: I want to thank the family for allowing Selma to say goodbye to John.

ELLIOTT: That's Congresswoman Terri Sewell of Selma, the first African American woman elected to Congress from Alabama. She spoke at a service held in historic Brown Chapel AME Church, a place of strategy and mass meetings during the civil rights movement. The ceremony featured Lewis' fellow foot soldiers, including Bettie Mae Fikes.


BETTIE MAE FIKES: This is my last song and my last time for my brother. (Singing) I been in the storm so long.

ELLIOTT: Outside the church, two men in their early 20s, Noah Calhoun and Tony Jackson, watched in awe. They live across the street in a public housing complex and came to bear witness.

NOAH CALHOUN: I'm just paying my respect, you know.

TONY JACKSON: There's so much history, mom (ph).

ELLIOTT: The pinnacle of Lewis' journey through Selma was a final symbolic crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge - Lewis' casket draped in an American flag riding in a horse-drawn caisson over rose petals scattered over the bridge span.



ELLIOTT: Frank Cunningham gave a military salute as the wagon passed and noted that Alabama state troopers were also standing at attention.

FRANK CUNNINGHAM: They all were saluting today instead of hitting him upside the head.

ELLIOTT: The violent confrontation 55 years ago known as Bloody Sunday galvanized national support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

ROSA TOWNES: God bless him. For all he's done, god bless him.

ELLIOTT: That's 90-year-old Rosa Townes of Selma, who was a foot soldier herself on Bloody Sunday.

TOWNES: We couldn't believe it. It was - they said - all the people hollering and screaming and running toward the back where we were. And we said, what happened? They said, the people got beat up in the front. So they turned toward us and we ran across the bridge. We were able to turn about and get away.

ELLIOTT: But change came in large part because of people willing to risk to get into good trouble, as John Lewis said, to push for change.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I believe I'll fight for good trouble.

ELLIOTT: It was a festive spirit as people lined the path to the bridge to pay tribute. Ghytana Goings from Selma brought her family.

GHYTANA GOINGS: I'm thinking of all the great things, just how grateful we were to have someone like him to pave the way, but then I'm also thinking about who's next? Who's going to be the person that will continue to fight?


ELLIOTT: Lewis' casket left Selma for Montgomery where 50 years ago Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace, ordered state troopers to use whatever means necessary to stop Lewis and the civil rights marchers from reaching Montgomery. On this trip, a military honor guard carried his casket up the steps of the Alabama Capitol.


ELLIOTT: He was placed in the rotunda to lie in state as mourners filed through to pay their last respects. A final honor for the native son in Alabama before the nation recognizes the conscience of the Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington today. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Montgomery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.