WASHINGTON – Lawmakers of both parties said that when moral clarity was needed, they sought guidance again and again from the late Rep. John Lewis.
They marveled at the gentle spirit of the Democratic congressman from Georgia and wondered why the abuse he suffered as a civil rights leader hadn't made him bitter. Their own spirits were lifted as they marched with Lewis on the anniversaries of Bloody Sunday or watched him spend countless hours talking to young people about the lessons of the past and the work that still needs to be done.
Lewis, who died July 17 from pancreatic cancer at 80, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma for the final time Sunday. A horse-drawn carriage carried Lewis' flag-draped casket across the bridge where he suffered a skull fracture when he and other peaceful marchers were beaten with clubs by state troopers on Bloody Sunday in 1965.
Lewis will lie in state on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Monday and Tuesday.
Here's what members of Congress said they will most remember about him.
Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla.: `He just stood out.'
Wilson remembers the three-piece suits Lewis used to wear, no matter how stifling the weather, as he carried a briefcase to project a serious image during the civil rights movement.
“That was during the years of the hippie time,” Wilson said. “He just stood out.”
Wilson’s brother, a friend of Lewis’ at Fisk University, was a fellow protester whose neck got infected when a Ku Klux Klan member used it to grind out a lit cigarette.
When Wilson arrived on campus, her father instructed her to stay in her dorm. He worried she didn’t have the temperament to be trained as a nonviolent demonstrator.
“I listened to my father, because I didn’t think I could really take that,” she said. “Through the years, I’ve created my own civil rights movement.”
Lewis was a big supporter of “5000 Models of Excellence,” the mentoring program Wilson started.
When she brought participants to Washington each year, Lewis would take them through the books, photos and other memorabilia of the civil rights movement in his office.
“He would cry, and they would cry,” she said.
At a program event one year in Miami, Wilson planned to distribute 600 copies of Lewis’ book “March.” Lewis, a speaker at the event, wanted to sign the books so Wilson offered to ship them to Washington where he could do so at his leisure.
`He said, `Oh no, Freddie. I can’t do that. I can’t leave them like that,’” Wilson remembers. Instead, Lewis sat up all night. When the driver arrived to take him to the airport, Lewis said: “The books are ready.”
”I couldn’t believe it. But that’s John Lewis,” Wilson said. “He invested every single, solitary moment of his time trying to make the world a better place, especially for the children and the next generation to follow.”
Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga.: The humble celebrity
If Bishop, who was often on the same flights between Washington and Atlanta as Lewis, would walk through the airport with him, it always took twice as long as if Bishop had been alone.
"Everyone wanted to say hello to John, take a picture with him, or get his autograph," Bishop said in a statement. "John always spoke with the service workers at each airport and made sure to check in with them, ask them how they were doing. Despite his celebrity status or whether he was pushed for time, he always made himself available to anyone who wanted to speak with him."
Another Georgian, GOP Rep. Austin Scott, always got a kick out of the fact that constituents on plane that both he and Lewis were on would sit down next to him and say: `Did you see John Lewis on the plane? And, by the way, what do you do?"
Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., was walking with Lewis to the Capitol one day when passengers in a cab driving along Independence Avenue spotted Lewis.
“They literally jumped out of the cab, in the middle of the street, and cars were honking,” Clark remembers. “John was saying, `I love you, brother. I love you, sister. But you’ve got to be safe!’”
Wilson, who used to sit next to Lewis on the House floor, said aides were always coming up to tell Lewis there were children outside from Africa, Australia, New York, Chicago and elsewhere hoping to get a picture with him.
Wilson worried that Lewis might miss a floor vote, but he’d slip away, telling her: “Come and get me if I’m too long.”
Republicans also showed their esteem for Lewis, said Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., even as they might fiercely oppose him during a policy debate.
“Those very same Republicans, when they had young people with him, they would bring that young person over to meet John Lewis,” Kelly said. “He had such respect from everybody.”
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas: `I know who you are.'
Hurd, the only Black Republican in the House, met Lewis on his first day in the chamber in 2015.
Hurd said he walked over to Lewis on the House floor, meaning to introduce himself, when Lewis cut him off – "I know who you are, Hurd. The CIA guy from Texas and San Antonio, specifically."
"Yes, sir. That's me," Hurd recalled saying, and Lewis responded, "Y'all down there in San Antonio have the largest MLK march in the country." Hurd laughed and replied, "Sir, I do know that."
Hurd said he considered Lewis a mentor.
"I would always go to him be like, 'Man, I want your perspective on whatever issue of the day is' and say, `How would you handle this back in the day?'" he remembers.
"It wasn't some specific advice," Hurd said. "He always gave perspective, and what's wild to me is that he is, literally, like the nicest guy. For all the things he went through, he was still the nicest guy and always had time to talk and give perspective."
Despite sitting on different sides of the aisle, they never "crossed swords," Hurd said.
"I'm just lucky," he said, "that I got to say that I was friends with John Lewis."
Reps. Katherine Clark, Robin Kelly and Judy Chu: A sit-in for gun control
In June 2016, after a gunman killed dozens of people at a nightclub in Florida, Clark was among the lawmakers frustrated with what she saw as Congress’s inability to respond.
“I was distraught that the House of Representatives, one of the greatest legislative bodies in the world, just gave eight seconds of silence,” the Massachusetts Democrat told USA TODAY. “I went and sat with Mr. Lewis and I said…I felt like we had to do something better.”
Lewis suggested a sit-in to demand votes on gun control measures.
"It was John that said, `Enough is enough,'" Chu said.
It started with a small group of Democrats going to the well of the House for the portion of the morning when lawmakers are allowed to speak on any topic.
“He went down on his knees and I went down on my knees,” said Kelly, another instigator. “And the rest is history.”
Democrats counted 170 of their members who eventually joined the more than 24-hour protest that broke House rules and halted regular floor activities. Republican leaders shut off the cameras to the floor and eventually adjourned the House early for their Fourth of July recess. But Democrats broadcast their protest through social media.
"They turned off the cameras, the House cameras, but we just held up our iPhones anyway," Chu said. "And the nation tuned in, transfixed."
At one point, Lewis laughed when Clark asked him how the demonstration compared with his other sit-ins.
“The conditions were pretty much the best he’d ever seen,” she said. “Nobody was in fear of bodily harm and we had people delivering doughnuts and pizzas to us from around the country.”
The measures Democrats pushed for have not become law. But Clark said gun violence has risen higher on voters’ list of concerns.
“I think it connected with the American people in a profound way,” she said. “When you combined John Lewis’ powerful voice with the voices of the young people that came out of March For Our Lives, it turned it into a potent political force for good and for peace.”
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I: `The voice of God'
When Cicilline was strategizing how to advance protections for the LGBTQ community, he faced a potentially big hurdle within the Democratic Party. Some in the African American community were concerned about opening up the Civil Rights Act they had fought so hard to enact.
Lewis, however, immediately agreed to back Cicilline’s bill to prohibit discrimination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in both the public and private sectors.
More significantly, Lewis spoke out during a crucial meeting Cicilline had with civil rights leaders to discuss how to approach the legislation.
“It was me and John on one side of the table and five people on the other side, skeptical about whether or not we should move forward with a single bill with all of the civil rights protections or whether amending the existing Civil Rights Law was really the best way to move forward,” Cicilline told USA TODAY. “John stood up and pounded his fists on the table and said, 'This is exactly what they told me when we were planning the March on Washington. But we have to be bold.’”
Cicilline said Lewis’ comments arrived like “the voice of God.”
That critical moment, he said, helped lead to the House passage last year of the Equality Act.
“There was no one who could speak with more integrity and more conviction and who had a better right to speak about it than someone who nearly gave his life for the passage of the Civil Rights Act,” Cicilline said. “Even at this stage in his life, he was willing to get in the fight and to be active in making the case about why equality for the LGBTQ community mattered.”
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Ca.: He was always 'Mr. Lewis'
Bass, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, treasures the memory of Lewis addressing an organization she started for young African American and Latino activists.
"It was such a memorable experience because...I wanted him to hear directly from young people who he had impacted and the older people who know of him and saw him through the Civil Rights movement," Bass told USA TODAY.
After Lewis watched performances from members of her Community Coalition, Bass recalled, he encouraged "them to stay involved, to talk about the change that he has seen happen and how much more work we needed to do."
Despite their camaraderie, Bass was never able to address him the way he preferred, as just "John."
"I told him I couldn't do that," Bass said. "I always referred to him as 'Mr. Lewis.'"
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.: `Never become bitter'
Scott, the first African American senator from South Carolina, was in awe when he met the "the living legend" after Scott was elected to the U.S. House in 2010.
"I remember walking into his office and looking around at what was almost a photography gallery, with lots of pictures from the '60s and the challenges and the struggles that he had faced to really make it easier for people like me to become a United States senator," Scott said.
Contemplating the sacrifices Lewis made and the pain he endured, Scott said he also sensed from Lewis a joy that "came from his faith and his resilience about who he was and who this country would live up to be one day."
Lewis, perhaps thinking about the challenges Scott faced as an African American Republican, and "knowing that it might be kind of challenging and sometimes hard," passed on some advice.
"He said to me, 'As life challenges you, and as you struggle with some of the decisions that you're going to have to make there, never become bitter. Do not let bitterness find a home with you,'" Scott recalled. "And that has really paid dividends for my entire time in Washington."
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.: Lessons in healing and forgiveness
Neal sat next to Lewis for 25 years on the House Ways and Means Committee and got a “full tutorial” on the civil rights movement. Neal learned that, after Lewis and others were brutally beaten while trying to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge, there was only one hospital in Selma, Ala., that would treat them. It was a small Catholic hospital staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph.
In 2015, Neal asked Lewis if he would accept an honorary degree from Elms College, a school in Massachusetts run by the same order. Lewis agreed. When he received the honor, he embraced Sister Maxyne Schneider, president of Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield.
“It was as powerful a moment as I've seen as the two of them broke down in tears,” Neal said. “It was really a very powerful moment for the thousands of people that were in the arena.”
Neal recounted the scene while looking at his framed copy of the 1965 Life magazine cover story of the walk across the bridge. Lewis gave him the signed copy of the magazine, which now hangs on Neal’s office wall.
Many years later, one of the men who beat Lewis on the bridge, visited him in Washington to seek his forgiveness.
When Neal and Lewis attended an event at which Archbishop Desmond Tutu talked about Nelson Mandela's forgiveness of the prosecutor who'd sought his death sentence, Neal confided that he couldn't imagine being able to do that.
“That just means," Lewis responded, "I have to work with you."
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.: `Larger than life'
Scalise, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the House, said meeting Lewis was like encountering a "larger than life" figure who nonetheless was surprisingly gentle and warm.
He called Lewis’ invitation to march “arm and arm” with him in Selma for the 2016 commemoration of Bloody Sunday one of “the great honors” of his time in Congress.
“We walked from the church down the street and around the corner, and then you're staring down the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and he was pointing out different landmarks and meeting places…and `This is where some of the people that were taunting us,'” Scalise told USA TODAY. “And it was just riveting."
Scalise said Lewis could have left that painful part of his past behind.
“And yet,” Scalise said, “he still wanted to show other people what happened."
Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa.: Making time for a boy
Kelly, who was Lewis’ GOP counterpart as the leader of a House Ways and Means subcommittee, brought along his eight-year-old grandson when Kelly participated in the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2015.
Lewis, Kelly said, made sure to tell the grandson how glad he was that he marched.
"President Obama was there. President Bush was there. All these people who were there, and he took time out of that whole event to come over and talk to a little boy," Kelly told USA TODAY.
Lewis, Kelly said, was his usual patient self in explaining what happened 50 years ago and “why we had to keep working on changing things in America."
Kelly said he’ll remember Lewis, not as much for the work they did together on the committee, but "just that the fact that he had time to spend with people.”
“And they didn't have to be some celebrity or somebody in front of a TV camera,” Kelly said. “That speaks in great, great words about just how gracious he was."
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC: Flummoxing the police
Holmes Norton, who served alongside Lewis in the House for thirty years, told USA Today that her memories of him were "not really centered on Congress," but rather, their time together on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
"There, all of us as youngsters got to know him by his leadership," she said. "Not by what he said, but by what he did, which was taking risks that I think many of us would not have."
Holmes Norton emphasized that Lewis' commitment to non-violent forms of protest was especially surprising given the unique climate of the South in the 1960s.
"Mississippi was the last place, as we called it, to be opened up by the Civil Rights Movement," Holmes Norton said. "It's important to know the difference between confronting the police in Washington and in confronting police in the deep South.”
The police in the South, she said, were at the leadership of white mobs. They didn’t know what to do when confronted with people who, instead of fighting back, knelt down or started to pray.
“Those tactics threw what were really vicious police way off,” she said. "If you think about John's life... it really would be quite impossible for John to do more in Congress than he had already done for the country when he was a leader of the civil rights movement.”
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga.: The power of his words
Johnson knows the power just a few words from Lewis could have.
In 2006, Johnson was a county commissioner in Georgia when he decided to take on a popular Democratic incumbent in his congressional district.
Most of the old guard Atlanta civil rights leaders were openly united behind the incumbent, Johnson recalled in a tribute he recently published in The Hill. But the day before the election, Lewis was quoted as saying that he thought Johnson would make a great congressman.
"This singular statement – uttered at an event at Manuel’s Tavern, Atlanta’s epicenter of progressive thought and politics – propelled me to a run-off and helped tip the balance in my favor in winning the 4th District seat,” Johnson wrote. “And I have been getting into `good trouble’ with John Lewis ever since.”
Rep. John Larson, D-Conn.: Passing Obamacare
As House Democrats fought to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2009, some Capitol Hill protests against the bill turned ugly. Lewis and other Black lawmakers were spat upon and called racial slurs, Larson recently recounted on the House floor.
When Democrats gathered on the day of the vote, Larson asked Lewis to speak.
“He said: 'Pay no attention to what went on yesterday. We have to learn, as we did in the civil rights movement, to look past this and keep our eyes on the prize. So I ask you to stay calm and stay together,’” Larson said.
Lewis suggested that Democrats emulate his march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge by locking arms as they walked across the Capitol grounds to go vote.
“And we did,” Larson said. “We marched across the street, through the protesters and passed the bill.”
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif: Giving up staff for Lewis
Lee was used to working closely with Lewis, comparing notes on tough votes. But Lewis took it a step further one day when he hired away one of her aides.
“Now, members (of Congress) know how we get agitated when our colleagues poach our staff members,” Lee said during a floor tribute to Lewis. “When he told me about it, believe it or not, for the first time, I was thrilled that one of my staff members had been poached by John Lewis. What an honor.”
Reps. Tony Cardenas and Denny Heck: 'I love you, brother'
Lewis reminded Cardenas, who grew up in a strict household, of how much he missed the rare occasions on which his mother or father would say, “I love you.”
So whenever Cardenas, D-Calif., got the chance to talk with Lewis, he would say, “I love you, brother,” knowing that Lewis would say it back, “and with all his heart mean it.”
“I selfishly relished the opportunity to hear him say it – `I love you too, brother,’” Cardenas recounted on the House floor.
Heck, D-Wash., initially thought Lewis called his colleagues “brother” and “sister” because he didn’t know everyone’s name.
“But that wasn’t it. He knew,” Heck said on the floor. “It was more a sign of respect and affection and mutuality.”
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.: Still protecting the chickens
The legendary story of Lewis preaching to the chickens on his family’s farm as a young boy entertained his colleagues, especially when it took on new dimensions, as Matsui recounted in her floor tribute to Lewis.
During a visit to California State University in Sacramento, Lewis learned that a group of students were advocating to keep some chickens on campus. The university president was adamant that the chickens had to go.
“And John said: `No way are you going to get rid of those chickens. I learned to preach by preaching to chickens,’” Matsui said. “That is the part of John that I really loved, too, that humorous part, the part you can laugh with.”
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass.: Brought to tears
When the New England Patriots faced the Atlanta Falcons in the 2017 Super Bowl, Moulton and Lewis made a friendly wager. The loser had to visit the winner’s district.
The Patriots won. But as a Lewis’ trip to Massachusetts got harder to schedule with conflicts and his age, Moulton offered to instead visit some of the civil rights sites in Lewis’ hometown.
“Through all the turmoil of the last few years, there are only two times I have cried in Congress: visiting the prison in Hanoi with John McCain and visiting Atlanta with John Lewis,” Moulton said in his floor tribute to Lewis. “I found myself wondering if I would have had the courage to join in those protests to be a freedom fighter, to change a nation. That is what John Lewis did."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: John Lewis: Lawmakers remember friendship, advice of civil rights icon