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Late John Lewis' Final Trip Across The Edmund Pettus Bridge

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The country is remembering civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis in a series of events leading up to his funeral Thursday in Atlanta. He died last week at the age of 80. This weekend, he's being honored in his home state of Alabama, and NPR's Debbie Elliott is there and is with us now from Montgomery.

Debbie, thanks so much for joining us.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Oh, glad to be with you.

MARTIN: And give us the scene. What's happening now?

ELLIOTT: Well, I'm here in Montgomery, and Lewis is lying in state at the Alabama Capitol. A military honor guard escorted his casket up the steps and into the rotunda. Now people are filing through to pay their last respects.

And, Michel, I know you know Montgomery, but just to put this into historical context for our listeners, John Lewis is now lying in state in the very building where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy, where segregationist Governor George Wallace once declared segregation forever, and up on a hill that overlooks the Dexter King Memorial Church, where Martin Luther King Junior was a preacher in the 1950s and started the Montgomery bus boycott here.

I'm parked in front of the church right now. It's adorned the front steps with remembrances of John Lewis. You know, John Lewis loved to tell the story of how he first met Martin Luther King when King sent him a round-trip bus ticket from his hometown of Troy, Ala., to come to the capital and meet with leaders of the boycott and how King used to call him, quote, "the boy from Troy."

MARTIN: Hearing your description of it is giving me chills, Debbie, I have to say. Well, earlier today, Lewis' casket made the symbolic final crossing of Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he and other civil rights marchers were viciously beaten 55 years ago. Would you just tell us, what was that experience like?

ELLIOTT: You know, it was both somber on one hand and then a bit of a home-going celebration on the other. The bridge was flanked by two large, beautiful white flower arrangements. And then rose - red rose petals had been scattered along the roadway. There was, like, a festival atmosphere as people were waiting for him to come along the foot of the bridge there.

And then this horse-drawn wagon came down the street carrying John Lewis' casket. It was draped with an American flag. And it made its way over that iconic bridge, over the Alabama River. And here's what that moment sounded like.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We love you, John.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering, unintelligible).

ELLIOTT: You know, someone in the crowd yelled, goodbye, soldier as others saluted the procession, including Alabama state troopers. Now, Michel, that's a far cry from the troopers who cracked Lewis' skull open during the 1965 voting rights march here.

MARTIN: It sure is. And you had a chance to talk to some of the people who came to witness that iconic - that last - that very memorable last crossing. What did they tell you?

ELLIOTT: You know, I was standing next to a man who raised his hand in a salute as Lewis' carriage passed by. Frank Cunningham is a construction worker from Potter Station, Ala., just about 5 miles from Selma. And here's what he told me about the moment.

FRANK CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I just want to salute a soldier that's gone home. But he played a role playing for all of us and let us know that it's a better way. And then, you know, the better way is nonviolence. Love one another and try to get along with everybody. That's what the world ought to be about.

ELLIOTT: You know, most of the people I spoke with echoed that theme - that Lewis persevered, never gave up hope to make the nation live up to its promise for all people.

MARTIN: Just as briefly as you can, Debbie, tell us what's next.

ELLIOTT: Oh, he's headed to the U.S. Capitol for high honors of lying in the state there. That's going to be tomorrow.

MARTIN: OK. That is NPR's Debbie Elliott in Montgomery, Ala.

Debbie, thank you so much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.