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Calls Grow To Honor John Lewis In Ways Both Symbolic And Concrete

Mourners pay their respects at a mural of Rep. John Lewis painted on a building in Atlanta. The civil rights icon and congressman died on Friday.
Elijah Nouvelage
Getty Images
Mourners pay their respects at a mural of Rep. John Lewis painted on a building in Atlanta. The civil rights icon and congressman died on Friday.

As tributes pour in for John Lewis, so do proposals for ways to honor the legacy of the long-time congressman and civil rights icon, who died at age 80 on Friday.

Suggestions range from renaming a historic bridge to passing voting rights legislation to holding a pandemic-safe public memorial.

There are growing calls to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. — the place where then-25-year-old Lewis and other protesters marching for voting rights were brutally beaten by state troopers — in his honor.

Lewis led an annual pilgrimage to Selma to commemorate the march, continuing the tradition this year despite the coronavirus pandemic and his own health challenges.

Pettus, the bridge's namesake, was a decorated Confederate general and member of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

A petition asking for the name change began circulating last month, and has gained momentum in recent days. As of Sunday, it had more than 469,000 signatures.

"It's far past time to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon that nearly gave his life on that bridge," wrote petition creator Michael Starr Hopkins. "Edmund Pettus was a bitter racist, undeserving of the honor bestowed upon him. As we wipe away this country's long stain of bigotry, we must also wipe away the names of men like Edmund Pettus."

As support for the renaming grows, other voices are advocating for a tribute they see as more befitting of Lewis' legacy.

On Sunday, Democratic lawmakers including House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn, Rep. Karen Bass and Rep. Ayanna Pressley called for the swift passage of existing voting rights legislation.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. When the House approved the legislation in Dec. 2019, it was Lewis who announced the tally.

In a Sunday appearance on CNN's State of the Union, Clyburn urged President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to pass the legislation, which he said should be in Lewis' name.

"It should be the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020," Clyburn said. "That's the way to do it. Words may be powerful, but deeds are lasting."

Supporters are also hoping to honor Lewis by allowing his remains to lie in state in the Capitol, a public memorial that presents logistical and public health challenges due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Capitol building is closed to tourists, and people permitted inside must maintain six feet of distance from others. In the current phase of Washington, D.C.'s reopening plan, mass gatherings are limited to a maximum of 50 people.

It remains to be seen how lawmakers will honor the man known as "the conscience of the Congress."

"I know he will be honored properly ... because he was the most respected member of the House, respected by the Senate, respected by both parties," Rep. Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told ABC on Sunday.

She added that she believes flags should be flown at half-mast until Lewis is laid to rest.

President Trump ordered U.S. flags at the White House and all government facilities nationwide lowered to half-staff for the day on Saturday.

In Atlanta, the city Lewis represented for more than three decades, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said flags will fly at half-staff indefinitely.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.