When John Lewis is mourned, revered and celebrated at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta later Thursday, he will return to a sacred place for many of those who helped to shape civil rights history.
The arc of Lewis’ legacy of activism will once again be tied to Ebenezer’s former pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., whose sermons Lewis discovered while flipping 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 Congress.
Lewis died July 17 at age 80.
Former President Barack Obama will be attending Thursday’s funeral and is expected to address mourners, according to a person familiar with the arrangements who was not authorized to speak publicly. President George W. Bush’s office said the former president and First Lady Laura Bush also will attend.
More than an hour before the service was scheduled to begin, a few dozen people had already gathered outside Ebenezer. Many of them sat in lawn chairs in front of a large screen just outside the church doors waiting to watch the service.
“He was my hero,” Ebenezer’s senior pastor, 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.
When Lewis was 15, he heard King’s sermons on WRMA, a radio station in Montgomery, Ala., he recalled in an interview for the Southern Oral History Program.
“Later I saw him on many occasions in Nashville while I was in school between 1958 and ’61,” Lewis said. “In a sense, he was my leader.”
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.”
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.”