The body of Rep. John Lewis will cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge one final time Sunday, 55 years after the civil rights icon marched for peace and was met with brutality in Selma, Alabama.
Body bearers from the U.S. armed forces are expected to place the late Georgia congressman and civil rights icon onto a horse-drawn caisson Sunday at the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. From here, the public will be able to march alongside Lewis to the foot of the bridge.
But Lewis, who died earlier this month at the age of 80, will take his last trip across the Edmund Pettus Bridge alone.
The 16-term lawmaker, often called the conscience of Congress, was a giant of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Lewis was only 25 when he believed Alabama troopers would kill him on the peaceful march for voting rights across the bridge on March 7, 1965, known today as “Bloody Sunday.”
Lewis suffered a fractured skull and was one of dozens of nonviolent protesters who were hospitalized. News coverage of the brutal beatings prompted increased pressure on Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, to bar states from enforcing discriminatory laws that had long hindered prospective Black voters.
And though Lewis is possibly best known for his march in Selma, he had already emerged as a leading voice in the fight for equal rights and had been arrested a number of times for the cause by that time.
As a student at Fisk University in Tennessee, Lewis helped organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. He was one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961, taking buses from the North to the Deep South to protest segregation at interstate bus terminals.
At 23, Lewis was the youngest person who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the time.
Calls have grown to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after Lewis, to honor the man who was arguably a lion in the fight for equality. A petition began in June by political strategist Michael Starr Hopkins, who told NBC News at the time that the idea came to him while watching Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” following days of protesting.
But Lewis’ death amplified the call to rename the bridge, which currently honors a Confederate general and KKK leader.
Selma officials, however, oppose the name change, according to the Associated Press. Alabama state Rep. Prince Chestnut, whose legislative district includes Selma, said it would be inappropriate to rename the bridge for Lewis alone.
“There were many Selmians and Alabamians who were either on the bridge in March 1965, near the vicinity or precipitated the situation that changed this country for the better. John was not the only one,” Chestnut said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Chestnut said he’d favor calling it something more general, such as the “Bloody Sunday Bridge” or “Historic Selma Bridge,” rather than naming it for Lewis. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C, told MSNBC, after Lewis’ death that the Georgia congressman had made unmatched sacrifices for the civil rights cause.
“Take his name off that bridge and replace it with a good man – John Lewis, the personification of the goodness of America – rather than honor someone who disrespected individual freedoms,” Clyburn said.