Atlanta church once led by MLK hosts civil rights pioneer John Lewis' funeral

Mike Dougherty
July 30, 2020 - 10:29 am
President Barack Obama honors U.S. Rep. John Lewis with Medal of Freedom

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Longtime congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis will be laid to rest today after a funeral at the legendary church where Martin Luther King Jr. used to deliver sermons. Lewis died July 17 at age 80.

Former President Barack Obama will deliver his eulogy at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are expected to attend as well. Donald Trump says he won’t be there.

"He was my hero," Ebenezer's senior pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, said in an interview late Wednesday. "He laid it all on the line, at the risk of life and limb."

"He read the Gospel, and he actually believed it — love your enemies," added Warnock, who will officiate the funeral.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp says, no matter where you go, everyone knows the name John Lewis.

“And more importantly, they know his record of speaking up, standing out and shaking up the status quo," Kemp said.


Lewis made a name for himself by getting into what he called "good trouble."

He discovered King's sermons while scanning the radio dial as a 15-year-old boy growing up in then-segregated Alabama. 

King continued to inspire Lewis' civil rights work for the next 65 years as he fought segregation during sometimes bloody marches, Greyhound bus "Freedom Rides" across the South and later during his long tenure in the U.S. Congress.

King was "the person who, more than any other, continued to influence my life, who made me who I was," Lewis wrote in his 1998 autobiography, "Walking with the Wind."

Congressman John Lewis poses in his Atlanta office with two of his favorite items from his collection of memorabilia from his younger days as a civil rights activist in the 1960s.
Kimberly Smith/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

By the summer of 1963, Lewis was addressing thousands of people during the March on Washington, speaking shortly before King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. He spoke then about Black people beaten by police and jailed — themes that resonate vividly in today's times.

"My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution," Lewis told the huge crowd on the Washington Mall.

"To those who have said, 'Be patient and wait,' we have long said that we cannot be patient," he added. "We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again."

In 1965, Lewis was beaten by Alabama state troopers in the city of Selma in what became known as "Bloody Sunday."

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms says he laid the ground work for her and other African American political leaders, and she will carry on his legacy.

“And so, governor, when the 'good trouble' continues, know it was with the blessing of congressman Lewis," he said, addressing Kemp. 

A military honor guard moves the casket of Rep. John Lewis into Ebenezer Baptist Church for his funeral, Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Atlanta.
Brynn Anderson/AP Photo

Last Sunday, his casket was carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The wagon rolled over a carpet of rose petals on the bridge that spans the Alabama River. On the south side of the bridge, where Lewis was attacked by the law officers, family members placed red roses that the carriage rolled over, marking the spot where Lewis spilled his blood and suffered a head injury.

Lewis was later awarded the Medal of Freedom by the nation's first Black president in 2011.

He spent more than three decades in Congress, and his district included most of Atlanta.

Lewis is the first Black lawmaker to lie in state at the capital rotunda.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.