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Rep. John Lewis speaks during a press conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. in 2013.MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

John Robert Lewis’s American passage made perhaps its most poignant earthbound crossing in the sunshine of an Alabama morning Sunday, traversing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the blood-soaked city of Selma for the last time – an echo of a journey that will live in the country’s history forever.

More than 55 years ago, the civil-rights activist Mr. Lewis, then 25 years old and both idealistic and insistent, was beaten on the bridge that spans the Alabama River and is named for a Confederate general who later became a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and a segregationist senator.

That passage in 1965 was full of the tumult of confrontation, police against protesters seeking to exercise their voting rights – the soundtrack of the past colliding with a future not yet realized. The passage in 2020 was in solemn silence.

The horse-drawn caisson bearing the flag-draped coffin of the 17-term congressman from Georgia stopped at the very place on the bridge where history started, the spot where the protesters confronted their tormentors. Today the path was littered with rose petals.

And as this occurred, Mr. Lewis’s acolytes and allies were united not in lamentation, but in thanksgiving.

“When we needed inspiration, he was the inspiration,” former congresswoman Donna Edwards, the first Black woman to be elected to the House of Representatives from Maryland, said in an interview as the events unfolded before her on television. “When we were angry and frustrated, he gave us a voice. To have served with him was every day to learn from him.”

The distance come, and the progress made: Remembering John Lewis

The procession across the bridge provided an arresting American moment, an apt endowment from a man who was arrested more than 40 times in his life, at least five times as a member of Congress and once, with Ms. Edwards, in front of Sudan’s embassy in Washington to protest then-Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s policy of genocide in Darfur.

Once Mr. Lewis’s body left Selma it travelled 65 kilometres to Alabama’s state Capitol in Montgomery, where for 16 years, beginning in 1963, the ultimate modern segregationist, George C. Wallace, occupied the governor’s office.

Mr. Lewis’s is among the great funeral processions in American history.

A carriage carrying the body of Rep. John Lewis pauses for one minute of silence at while making the final crossing over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the historic 1965 voting rights marches, on July 26, 2020 in Selma, Ala.Curtis Compton/The Associated Press

The first was the funeral train for Abraham Lincoln, which in 1865 wound for 13 days through 80 cities across seven states from Washington to Springfield, Ill., with some mourners waiting five or more hours to pay their respects. The procession spawned a cantata called The Lonesome Train written during the middle of the Second World War and containing this reprise line: “He was made of hopes, he was made of dreams, he was made of fears, he was made to last a million years.‘'

A year after the appearance of the cantata by Millard Lampell and Earl Robinson – and 80 years after the Lincoln funeral train – the body of Franklin Delano Roosevelt travelled 1,600 kilometres through nine states over three days. And in 1968, the assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a Democratic presidential candidate, was buried after a funeral train inched from Washington to New York, witnessed by two million people.

In all three of those processions, Black Americans – often weeping – were in deep mourning but were at the sidelines. In this one, a Black man – his skull cracked on Bloody Sunday 1965 – was the centrepiece.

This time the Lewis credo (“Good trouble”) did not carry the air of irony, nor the illogic of an oxymoron. This time there was no debate over the virtue of Mr. Lewis’s notion that redemptive suffering “opens us and those around us to a force beyond ourselves, a force that is right and moral, the force of righteous truth that is at the basis of all human conscience.”

This farewell to Mr. Lewis – a nation’s effort to bid a solemn adieu to a hero, to salute a man of character and courage, and perhaps, in its current humility and perhaps in its historic humiliation, to ask for the forgiveness of its sins – has a sad but evocative itinerary: Troy. Selma. Montgomery. Washington. Atlanta.

If Mr. Lewis’s progression – a metaphor for his progression, and for America’s – has the air of a bus schedule, then that is a metaphor with real power.

For it was on buses that the civil-rights battles of the middle of the 20th century were fought, and it was the bus riders – often “Black and white together,” in the improvised line added to the 1900 gospel song We Shall Overcome that became an anthem of the civil-rights era – who were Mr. Lewis’s fellow travellers on a road to revolt. Their target: an institutionalized system of racism, segregation and government-sanctioned violence against Black Americans.

Rosa Parks in 1955 refused to move to the back of an Alabama bus after the driver ordered her to relinquish her seat for a white passenger. The Montgomery Bus Boycott in the one-time capital of the Confederacy – in the year after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling declaring school segregation unconstitutional – spawned a 381-day protest. It was on buses that the student activists known as the Freedom Riders, including Mr. Lewis, travelled to the Deep South beginning in 1961 to fight Jim Crow travel laws.

It was on buses that 250,000 Americans travelled in August, 1963, for the March on Washington that today is remembered for the “I have a dream” speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But a largely forgotten episode has power of its own. When Mr. Lewis submitted his speech for the rally, several elders of the civil-rights movements, especially the march’s leader, A. Philip Randolph, the powerful head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly African-American labour union, found it too strident. President John F. Kennedy demanded that it be altered. Later, the original version, with the criticism of the Kennedy civil-rights bill that is especially poignant for our time (“There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality”), was recorded by the actor Danny Glover.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington in 2011.Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press

And it was through these lumbering yellow vehicles that the bitterly divisive remedy of busing was employed to enforce school integration, with violence and enduring enmity in Boston.

Six years ago, to commemorate an anniversary of the Montgomery protest, Mr. Lewis issued a statement that has special meaning as America contemplates the legacy of the man who from 1963 to 1966 was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee: “They are no longer with us, but the ideas they stood for define a great legacy and the work they have left for us to do still remains.”

Mr. Lewis is no longer with us, but the ideas he stood for define a great legacy and the work he has left for us to do still remains. In a show of solidarity last month and in one of his final public appearances, Mr. Lewis – weakened by pancreatic cancer and wearing a mask – visited the Black Live Matter Plaza in the capital, near the White House.

The other great funeral processions in American history provoked unforgettable images. Some, collected in an art gallery and later in a photo book, were from the Life magazine photographer Paul Fusco, who bore witness to Robert Kennedy’s farewell and who died just two days before Mr. Lewis. But the most memorable is from the FDR funeral train, where Life photographer Ed Clark caught a single Black man, Navy Chief Petty Officer Graham W. Jackson, standing amid a white crowd and playing his accordion as the 32nd President’s coffin passed by.

On that day in 1945, Mr. Jackson played Charles Tindley’s gospel song Goin’ Home, an appropriate anthem for a troubled country in grief exactly three-quarters of a century later:

Goin' home, goin' home, I'm a goin' home;

Quiet-like, some still day, I'm jes' goin' home.

It's not far, jes' close by,

Through an open door;

Work all done, care laid by,

Goin’ to fear no more.

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