US civil rights icon John Lewis to lie in state at Capitol

© Agence France-Presse

A mural of civil rights leader John Lewis at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington

Washington (AFP) - The body of Congressman John Lewis was to lie in state at the US Capitol on Monday for Americans to pay a final tribute to the civil rights icon.

Former vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, and Vice President Mike Pence were among those expected to pay their respects.

Lewis, a 17-term Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from the southern state of Georgia, died of pancreatic cancer on July 17 at the age of 80.

Lewis' flag-draped casket is to lie in state on Monday afternoon in the rotunda of the US Capitol, a rarely bestowed honor.

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, his body will then be moved outside to the Capitol's steps to allow members of the public to pay tribute in a socially distanced manner all day on Tuesday.

Congressman Elijah Cummings, who died last year, was the first black congressman to lie in state in the Capitol although in Statuary Hall, not in the rotunda.

Other politicians who have lain in state recently in the Capitol include former president George H.W. Bush and Arizona senator John McCain.

On Sunday, a lone caisson drawn by two black horses carried Lewis' body across the Alabama bridge where in 1965 a policeman fractured his skull during a protest that helped forge his reputation as a fearless civil rights leader. 

The procession across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the city of Selma came on the second of six days of solemn commemorations for Lewis.

It also came in a year when "Black Lives Matter" protests against police brutality have brought thousands onto US streets, underscoring the still-raw depths of the country's racial history. 

The procession was saluted by a line of Alabama state troopers -- a starkly different reception from what Lewis received on the March 7, 1965 march in Selma, when a trooper beat the then-25-year-old to the ground with a nightstick, fracturing his skull and nearly killing him.

The march, on a day later dubbed "Bloody Sunday," was considered a turning point in the civil rights movement.

Lewis grew up in the Alabama city of Troy. His parents were sharecroppers, and he once worked in a cotton field. While attending segregated schools, Lewis was inspired by the peaceful protests of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

On Thursday, solemn commemorations for Lewis will end in Atlanta, Georgia, where he will be remembered in a private service in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King once preached. Lewis' burial will follow.