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Remembering John Lewis: A man more interested in building bridges than burning them

Rep. Lewis is the first Black member of Congress to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda. It is fitting and proper that his casket rests on the very same catafalque upon which President Lincoln’s coffin rested in 1865.

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People say farewell at the conclusion of a service for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a key figure in the civil rights movement and a 17-term congressman from Georgia, as he lies in state at the Capitol in Washington on Monday, July 27, 2020.

Shawn Thew, pool via Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — During this past weekend the late Rep. John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge one last time. The caisson carrying his casket slowly and solemnly crossed the bridge where Lewis nearly lost his life decades earlier in the midst of a peaceful protest. That bridge was a beginning for the famed civil rights leader. On Saturday the bridge marked the beginning of his final march toward his final resting place with an important stop at the United States Capitol where he is lying in state.

Lewis was always more interested in building bridges and crossing them than he was in burning them.

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President Barack Obama, fourth from left, listens to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., as he speaks about “Bloody Sunday” as they and the first family, civil right leaders and members of Congress walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., for the 50th anniversary of the landmark event of the civil rights movement on Saturday, March 7, 2015. From left are Sasha Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Lewis, Obama, Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten during “Bloody Sunday,” and Adelaide Sanford, also in a wheelchair.

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

For decades Lewis served as the bridge back to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the vital movement toward civil rights, equality and justice. Monday, he reached further back and became a binding link to President Abraham Lincoln. 

Lewis is the first Black member of Congress to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda. It is altogether fitting and proper that his casket rests on the very same catafalque upon which President Lincoln’s rested in 1865.

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President Barack Obama, left, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., center, and former President George W. Bush, right, hold hands for a prayer on March 7, 2015, near the location where marchers were beaten by Alabama state troopers in 1965, during a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech on July 10, 1858, wherein he spoke of “that electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”

Both Lewis and Lincoln recognized that the electric cord in the Declaration that “all men are created equal” would require the people of America to be led by the principles of freedom and guided by the better angels of their nature in order for it to become a reality.

Both men believed that America’s march would lead it ultimately through a familiar story — the story of redemption. Redemption requires the kind of deep humility which then enables true patriots the vision to see beyond the years.

During my time in Washington, I regularly walked through the Capitol rotunda very late at night. I would often pause and spend a few moments gazing at the majestic painting of Gen. George Washington resigning his commission before the Continental Congress. It is one of the few instances in history when the commander of the conquering forces did not assume complete authority and power, but instead returned it to the citizens and their representatives. I marveled at his humility and greatness of vision.

I would then look around the rotunda to a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The sculpture was revealed to the world in 1986. Then Sen. Charles Mathias Jr., served as chairman of the committee responsible for the project. At the unveiling ceremony, Mathias declared that today, “Martin Luther King takes his rightful place among the heroes of this nation.” I likewise marveled at King’s humility, greatness of vision and belief in America’s binding redemption story.

In the midnight hours, in the quiet stillness of the empty rotunda, you can hear and sense and know the principles of freedom that gave Washington, King and others the resolve to lead America toward its better self.

The Deseret News editorial board noted at Lewis’ passing that, “In 2009, Elwin Wilson traveled to Washington to meet with Lewis, who by then was a respected longtime member of Congress. Wilson was a white man who, in 1961, had been part of a mob of young toughs that beat Lewis and other civil rights protesters who had dared to enter a bus station waiting room designated for whites only.”

Wilson asked for forgiveness. Lewis frankly forgave. Both men were connected in a belief in the divine redemption of man and the earthly redemption of our nation. They shed tears, shared an embrace and emerged calling each other “brother.”

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State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965. John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (in the foreground) is being beaten by a state trooper. Lewis, a future U.S. Congressman sustained a fractured skull.

Associated Press

As The Associated Press noted, Lewis’ life was an example of “activism fueled by religion.” The nation must be wary of banishing from the public square the very faith that has fueled the rise of freedom, liberty and justice. The genuine heroes and heroines of our history, including Rep. Lewis, have relied on such faith to bring forth a new birth of freedom.

Today, in the rotunda of our nation’s capitol the heroes of America’s history look down on, and have been joined by, another hero of humility, vision and redemption in Rep. John Lewis.

In crossing the bridge of death, Lewis has joined those heroes of America’s history. Fortunately for all of us he will forever have a link to Lincoln and be the bridge to King. We all would be wise to link arms with them and all who, with humility, vision and belief in redemption, march toward a better America. Together we can cross — and then build — more bridges of brotherhood and sisterhood toward a more perfect union.

In the stillness of the rotunda, with head bowed in honor of Lewis, you can hear Lincoln’s redemptive pleas for the American people to hold fast to that electric cord of the Declaration and unite, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

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Members of the Congressional Black Caucus reach in and touch the flag-draped casket of civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who died July 17, in the Capitol rotunda in Washington on Monday, July 27, 2020.

Jonathan Ernst, pool via Associated Press