The “Boy from Troy” made one last visit home.
Hundreds of people – friends, family and the public – gathered Saturday at Trojan Arena to honor the life of civil rights icon and Pike County native Rep. John Lewis, who died July 17 at age 80.
Rather than a somber remembrance, the memorial service featured jubilant music courtesy of Sheila Jackson and award-winning gospel artist Dottie Peoples, fond childhood remembrances from Lewis’ siblings, and frequent references to his propensity for “good trouble.”
During the service, the flag of the country he loved adorned his casket, a reminder of Lewis’ more than 30 years serving in the U.S. Congress representing Georgia’s 5th district.
Lewis’ passion, dedication and kindness drew people from throughout the area to pay their respects to the man the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the boy from Troy.”
“Some of the struggles that he went through, I’m old enough to have gone through some of the same struggles,” said the Rev. Lovell Martin, a Troy resident. “He paved the way to make life better not only for myself but for all the American people he was working for. He didn’t work just for a race, he worked for everybody. He set an example young people could look up to, and they received some of the benefits he fought for – voting rights, civil rights and justice across the nation. I felt it was honorable to come and look at such a human being for the last time.”
Some in attendance remembered the horrific events of “Bloody Sunday,” when Lewis’ skull was fractured in a beating by Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
“Growing up in the South, I knew him for the struggle that we went through as black people,” said Mary Davis, a Troy resident who attended school with Lewis’ brother, Henry “Grant” Lewis. “When he got beaten, I was small at that time, very young, but I can remember that scene. That scene has never left my mind, how they were beaten by the police as they tried to cross the bridge. He never gave up. He pressed on.”
Many in attendance remembered the congressman for his kindness and willingness to reach out to others.
“We decided we were going to come because he had been to our church,” said Hattie Heggins, who drove from Dothan with her husband for the service. “What I remember about him was he was very honorable, he was very nice, and he really didn’t act like a celebrity. He was a kind, compassionate person. What I got from his life was to try to treat everybody right, and when you see something that is not right, try your best to make it right.”
Heggins’ words were echoed by Lewis’ sister, Rosa Mae Tyner, who spoke of her brother’s mission to attack injustice wherever he saw it.
“A humble man, a simple man and a man of God, he always wanted to improve the lives of others without any concern for himself,” she said. “He always told us, ‘If you see something wrong, do something. See something, say something, do something.’”
While many knew Lewis for his civil rights work, others knew John Lewis the family man.
His brother, Henry, recalled the congressman making a surprise visit to his nephew’s fifth-grade class.
Troy resident Mellonese Johnson grew up hearing her mother, one of Lewis’ cousins, sing the congressman’s praises. Saturday was a chance for her to pay her respects to someone she’d admired her entire life.
“He was a legend. He did things for so many people, and he was a great person,” Johnson said. “My mother used to talk about him a lot, the struggle he went through, and he never gave up – not once.”
Since taking office in January 1987, Lewis has inspired many leaders both nationally and locally.
One of those leaders, Troy City Councilman Robert Jones, said he couldn’t miss a chance to honor the late congressman.
“He was an icon. He was a warrior and a trooper,” Jones said. “The lesson I take away from him is like he said, to get in and start trouble, but good trouble. You’ve got to walk on the right side, and that’s what he did.”
Troy University Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr., said his encounters with Lewis always included a conversation about Lewis being denied entry to TROY in 1957 on the basis of race.
“With that sheepish grin, he would always remind me that in 1957 he was denied admission to Troy State College,” Dr. Hawkins said. “He would quickly remind me that, 32 years later, we were sensible enough to award him an honorary doctorate.”
Lewis would also receive the Hall-Waters Prize for Excellence in Southern Writing from Troy University in 2006 for his memoir, “Walking with the Wind.”
Troy resident Daniel Wyche said Lewis’ presence will continue to be felt in the city and on the Troy Campus.
“The impact that he’s had locally, nationally and internationally is [incredible],” Wyche said. “It seems as though you can see traces of his influence floating around the campus still. Settling down here and seeing the real civil rights icons, it would be a waste of an opportunity to not come out here and see something like this in real time. He left us the concept of good trouble – if you see something that’s wrong … and the next person that comes to that wall, you should be knocking it down for them. I believe that’s what Congressman John Lewis did for us, set that example, so for me, it’s about seeing that light and following it.”
Of all the day’s glowing tributes, perhaps nobody put into words the legacy of Rep. John Lewis more appropriately than Davis: “The kind of man that he was is the kind that God intended everyone to be – to stand up for what’s right.”