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Services honoring Rep. John Lewis begin in Alabama

Memorial services spread over six days starting Saturday will honor and celebrate the life and legacy of civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis who died after a battle with pancreatic cancer. The stops, across five cities, include Troy, Alabama, where he was born and Selma, where Lewis helped lead the voting rights march on “Bloody Sunday.” Alabama Public Radio news director Pat Duggins joins to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I spoke with Alabama Public Radio news director Pat Duggins earlier today about the memorial service in Troy and tomorrow's planned procession from Selma to Montgomery.

    First, this is the beginning of a long series of days. Well, we're going to be honoring John Lewis. What was special about Alabama? Why start here?

  • Pat Duggins:

    Well, because he grew up just outside of the city of Troy.

    I mean, he was the son of sharecroppers and he experienced the same kind of racial discrimination that everyone did. He couldn't check books out of the library. There were the other colored water fountains and the white water fountains. And one thing that was pointed out to me over the years is those colored water fountains had warm water. And then the white ones had cold water.

    So, I mean, if you're in Alabama and one of those 100 degree summer days, I mean, it's pretty awful. So Alabama turned out to be kind of a battleground, not only for him, but also for Dr. King, but for his family who attended en masse for this event today. It was kind of a homecoming for them. And some of the stories they told were were really heartwarming, really kind of give you a side of John Lewis you didn't know about.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What struck you? What's an example of something that we are unlikely to hear when it comes to the sort of professional eulogies that might happen later in the week?

  • Pat Duggins:

    Well, his sister confided that he was afraid of thunder and lightning and no one ever called him John. I mean, if you wanted to know somebody who really knew John Lewis well, he always called him Robert. That's his middle name.

    And that one time as his brother Henry was was eulogizing him and said, you know, the first time that John was being sworn into Congress up on stage, he threw me a big thumbs up. And then afterwards I walked up to him and said why'd you give me a thumbs up from John? John said, Man, we've come a long way from Alabama, haven't we?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what all is planned in Alabama now after this service that we saw today?

  • Pat Duggins:

    Well, there's going to be a service tonight at Brown A.M.E. Church in Selma, which is one of the martialing areas for the the voting rights marches that John Lewis took part in in 1965 when he and the others were attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

    Then tomorrow, there's going to be a procession over the bridge, which is where Lewis and all of his his friends wanted to go during the other fight for voting rights. And then tomorrow also, there's going to be a moment where he's laid in state at the Alabama capital.

    Then on Monday, people will be able to pay their respects at the U.S. capital. And then on Wednesday, he comes back to Atlanta and he'll lay in state there and then he'll be interred during a family only affair just outside of Atlanta.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What's been the reaction like from his birthplace this past week?

  • Pat Duggins:

    Well, if you ask his family, it was kind of a homecoming.

    I mean, there was singing during the memorial ceremony today. There was dancing. I may be being a bit of a curmudgeon, but it struck me that the the event started at 10:00 a.m. Central Time, sharp, and it took 17 minutes before the first African-American person got to talk. So you've got that going on.

    You've got the head of Troy University say, oh, well, back in the day, we wouldn't even allow him to enter the university. And later on, we gave him an honorary doctorate, how about that? The state troopers that were part of the attacking squad in 1965, during Bloody Sunday, were the ones now looking over his casket, which is obviously draped with the American flag. So one small sign of how things have changed.

    But then I read an Associated Press account, while I was getting ready for this interview about how the police chief at Troy University was suspended because he went on social media and said that George Ford contributed to his own death. So things are changing. Things are not changing. It's kind of glacial. And unfortunately, John Lewis didn't see it to its fruition. He got a lot done, but still clearly a lot left to do.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Pat Duggins, Alabama Public Radio, thanks so much.

  • Pat Duggins:

    Thank you, Hari.

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