ATLANTA — Quoting Langston Hughes, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Wednesday remembered the late Rep. John Lewis as a man who fought for America to be the land it calls itself, where "opportunity is real, and life is free, equality is in the air we breathe."
The poem, "Let America be America Again," was written in 1935, five years before Lewis' birth. It laments a nation that never has made its universal founding principles universally enjoyed - "There's never been equality for me, nor freedom in this 'homeland of the free,'" Hughes writes - and yet expresses belief in the potential that it still may - "I say it plain, America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath - America will be!"
The mayor said Lewis, a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement who shed blood for the cause of equality and then served more than three decades as a lawmaker for the nation which drew that blood, embodied the defiant optimism in Hughes' words.
"Although the fight for liberty and equality continues," Bottoms said, "Congressman Lewis reminded us to be hopeful, to be optimistic and to never lose a sense of hope - 'O, let America be America again, the land that never has been yet and yet must be, the land where every man is free.'"
Lewis will lie in state until late tonight at the capitol in downtown Atlanta. Bottoms was among the speakers, along with Gov. Brian Kemp, who eulogized him before a public viewing.
She spoke from the center of a city, "once a stronghold of the Confederacy," as she noted, to honor a man, "a descendant of the enslaved, a son of sharecroppers," for whom she said she had a lifelong "deep and abiding admiration."
She spoke of him as a titan of history who never lost his personal touch and sense of place among the people.
"I knew Congressman Lewis as the man who worked at SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee) with my aunt Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson. She died at age 26, leaving a two-year-old son behind. Each time I saw the congressman his eyes glistened with tears when he spoke of her," Bottoms said. "He told me stories of being beaten with her and going to jail together in Rock Hill, South Carolina - he always made sure to ask about her son Toure.
"Although an Alabama legend, an Atlanta icon and an American hero, Congressman Lewis took time to let me know, to let all of us know, that we mattered to him."
She noted his visit to the Black Lives Matter mural in Washington, D.C., in his final appearance in public, and said "until his last days he was calling upon America to be America again, in his words and in his deeds."
In the wake of a very public battle with the governor over a mask requirement she issued in the city, and Kemp's subsequent lawsuit to stop it, she channeled Lewis in sharing a pointed message at the capitol.
"I was deeply moved a couple of days ago when his chief of staff, Michael Collins, shared with me that the congressman was intently watching the news of Atlanta and proud of the leadership that’s been shown," she said. "And so, governor, when the good trouble continues, know that it is with the blessings of Congressman Lewis."