ATLANTA — “Compassionate yet compulsive.” “A work horse, not a show horse.” “A woman who did not just come and occupy space…”
Described for her many attributes, both charming and impressive –though she found comfort in being a life partner and confidant behind the scenes, Lillian Lewis, 73, an outspoken civil rights activist and the wife of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, was laid to rest on Monday, Jan. 7.
Hundreds gathered in Atlanta for the homegoing services of Mrs. Lewis, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where she and husband John Lewis married 44-years earlier to the exact date of her passing on New Year’s Eve, 2012.
Remembered for her discipline, voracious appetite for knowledge, dependability, and common-sense in a society commonly lacking sense, Lillian was commended for being a key motivator in encouraging the congressman’s entry into politics. With Lillian by his side, John Lewis became the second African-American [after Andrew Young] to represent the state of Georgia in Congress following Reconstruction, and successfully won 13 bids for reelection.
While many including the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., and Trumpet Awards founder and best friend to Lillian, Xernona Clayton, spoke idyllically of rough patches over the course of their friendship; Lillian’s “rare innate ability to make everyone feel special,” was a domineering theme.
Distinctive attributes including her affinity for sweets, and bright colors; and her devotion to the Atlanta University Center, Peace Corps and towards Africa were also highlighted.
National and local legislators, the full body of the Atlanta city council, along with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed; and fellow activist including the sister of Martin Luther King Jr., Christine King-Farris, and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, gathered to pay final respects to Lillian.
“I doubt any member of Congress had a better-informed spouse,” said Farris.
Rep. Lewis has largely been regarded as one of the “Big Six” foot soldiers of the civil rights movement, as a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which subjected him to violent confrontations and atrocious beatings; and for his work with King. In 2011, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama, the highest civilian honor.
A friend and confidant to her husband; and fiercely trusted, Lillian and John Lewis were introduced by the matchmaking Clayton during a New Year’s Eve dinner party—the shared date of Lillian’s passing.
Clayton initiated the affectionate courtship with the icebreaker: “John, you got a girl?
Xernona and Lillian themselves were first introduced by King. Lillian and John later went on to wed during the year of King’s assassination in 1968.
Lillian was stricken in later years by illness, and cared for in a nursing home. But friends said she was a God-fearing woman, and many observed the occasion as a tribute, rather than a final goodbye.
“Lillian was a peace-loving, freedom-fighting woman,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“Good night and see you in the morning,” remarked Ebenezer Senior Pastor Emeritus, Dr. Joseph L. Roberts.