‘The Boy from Troy’ starts week of memorial services for Rep. John Lewis

Updated: Jul. 25, 2020 at 11:20 AM CDT
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TROY, Ala. (WSFA) - The first of several memorial services for the late Rep. John Lewis was held in his hometown on Saturday morning. It included messages from local representatives who spoke of the man’s life, family who recalled “Robert” instead of John, and vocal performances from Dottie Peoples and others.

Despite being a longtime congressman from Georgia, Lewis was the third of ten children born to sharecropper parents in Troy, Alabama. In returning home one final time, his hearse drove under a large American flag hoisted over the road to Troy University where the service, called “The Boy from Troy,” was held.

Lewis’ flag-draped coffin was carried into an empty Trojan Arena around 9:30 a.m. and his family was given a few minutes of private time before guests were allowed to enter. Those guests filled seats across the arena floor that had been spaced out to socially distance visitors during the ongoing pandemic.

Troy Chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins was first to speak of the late congressman and praised him for the actions of his life and said he Lewis would cite Troy as an example of change over the decades.

“In 1957, we didn’t enroll the first African American student. We didn’t have an international student,” Hawkins said. “We’re very proud today that 30 percent of our students are African American and we have almost 80 countries represented here. We talk about the importance and the impact of diversity, and he was proud of that. We share that pride.”

The chancellor recalled Lewis’ enthusiasm and pride when the university began developing the Rosa Parks Museum at its Montgomery campus. Over the years, more than 225 from Congress have visited, and Hawkins said many of the delegations were led by Lewis.

“He became so proficient,” the chancellor said of Lewis’ visits, “that he could give the very tour that our tour guides give.”

Hawkins closed his remarks with a final tribute, confirming that the university’s annual leadership conference, held during Black History Month, will be named in Lewis’ honor.

“May God bless the memory of a very good man,” Hawkins concluded.

Troy Mayor Jason Reeves called Lewis “a man of action” and added “that action has inspired this community and inspired this world.”

Reeves, in preparing for the memorial, added that he was recently looking at something involving Lewis’ academic record and a counselor’s note caught his attention.

“The counselor had written at the bottom ‘Appears shy, but verbally says he is going on to school to be somebody,’ and I thought about that word ‘be’, and how ‘be’ is not only a linking verb, but it’s an action verb,” Reeves explained. “And I thought about all the actions that he had taken, and the example that he had been and the courage that it took to do those things. It was otherworldly courage.”

The mayor, who has longtime connections to the Lewis family, drew applause as he recalled moments of Lewis’ life and said “he changed the world.”

Reeves’ final thoughts brought clarity to how things have changed, pointing out that though Lewis was beaten by Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, it will be Alabama State Troopers escorting his body to memorial services across the state.

And each of those troopers works for Col. Charles Ward, Reeves pointed out. Ward, an African American man, leads the troopers “not because of the color of his skin, but because of the content of his character, and because of the ability that he has” Reeves explained. “And that’s what John Lewis did for Troy, for Pike County, for the United States, and the world.”

Several of the congressman’s family members, including his brother Henry “Grant” Lewis, spoke of their loved on.

“He worked a lifetime to help others and make the world a better place to live,” Henry Lewis recalled.

“He came from a humble beginning. Always humble, and respectful to others,” added his sister, Ethel Mae Tyner. “Rest well, Robert. Rest well.”

Following the memorial service, visitors were given an opportunity to say a final goodbye. The congressman’s body will lie in repose until 2 p.m. at Trojan Arena. Afterward, his coffin will be taken to the next memorial, set for Saturday evening in Selma.

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