When Representative Elijah E. Cummings became the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol last fall, the public poured into Statuary Hall, a choir from Morgan State University sang and admirers cried and hugged.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
Now, with the Capitol closed to tourists, and those allowed inside the building encouraged to stay six feet apart, congressional leaders are puzzling over how to safely and appropriately honor Representative John Lewis, a 17-term congressman from Georgia, the senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus and an icon of the civil rights movement who died on Friday.
Congress has honored more than 40 individuals by allowing their remains to lie in state in the Capitol, including, most recently, Mr. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, President George Bush and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. The occasions have drawn thousands of people, many of them traveling from far away and lining up for hours to pay their last respects.
Many of his supporters believe that such an honor would be fitting for Mr. Lewis, who is widely regarded as an American hero.
But congressional leaders have also emphasized the need for lawmakers to set an example for the rest of the country by avoiding large crowds, as a public memorial to Mr. Lewis would surely draw. Washington currently bans mass gatherings of more than 50 people, though President Trump ignored that when he hosted a Fourth of July celebration at the White House this month.
On Saturday, it was clear lawmakers had not yet figured out how to balance their desire to honor Mr. Lewis within the confines of virus restrictions.
“He will be honored and celebrated in the fashion so deserving of him,” said Representative Joyce Beatty, Democrat of Ohio, the first vice chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “He would want us to do it in a safe and healthy way. I think there is enough space for masked-up social distancing to pay our respects.”
Ms. Beatty, who said she considered Mr. Lewis a “mentor and a friend,” suggested there were other ways to honor Mr. Lewis, particularly his commitment to the power of protest.
“Maybe it’s something we do outside?” she continued. “Maybe we march in his honor? John came into existing marching. Why wouldn’t we march behind him, as one way to say ‘Rest in power’?”
Mr. Lewis, who was known as the “conscience of the Congress” for his moral authority acquired through years of protest for racial equality — including being beaten and bloodied during voting rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala. and across the Jim Crow South — announced late last year that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
“The Congressional Black Caucus is a family and we just lost our elder,” said Representative Karen Bass, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “We knew he was sick. We knew he was terminally ill. But it doesn’t make a difference. It’s a very painful day for all 55 of us.”
Ms. Bass said that Mr. Lewis “should be given the maximum recognition,” but it’s “a little too soon” to plan specific honors.
“Right now, you’re caught up in grief and coming to grips that our nation lost a hero,” Ms. Bass said.
Members of the caucus recalled Saturday how they looked to Mr. Lewis for guidance on how to make decisions regarding moral issues. Mr. Lewis supported legalizing same-sex marriage before other Democrats did, helping change minds on the issue, recalled Representative Al Green, Democrat of Texas.
“If the Honorable John Lewis was for it, that made it safe,” Mr. Green said. “A lot of votes passed because it was known he would be voting ‘yes.’”
Mr. Green said he had the honor of being arrested alongside Mr. Lewis on two occasions: Once, in 2006, while protesting genocide in Sudan and a second time, in 2013, while rallying for immigration reform.
“If you go to jail with someone, you get to know them,” Mr. Green said. “I was a follower; he was a leader. I knew if he was doing it, it was what he called ‘good trouble.’”
Mr. Green said he believed Mr. Lewis should have the honor of lying in state. He recalled how Mr. Lewis’ commitment to nonviolent protest continued even after police attacked and brutally beat civil rights demonstrators at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965.
“We have to celebrate his life,” Mr. Green said. “Lying in state is part of the celebration of the life of a great American. He was not an ordinary person. He would not agree with me saying that, but he was not. To love the way he loved? To take what he took on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and still preach love? You’re not an ordinary person.”
With Mr. Lewis’s death, Representative Sanford D. Bishop Jr., Democrat of Georgia, is now the third-most senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus. The two men had known each other for more than 50 years. They were both born in Alabama, but rose to political heights in Georgia.
“Alabama named us, but Georgia claimed us,” Mr. Bishop recalled Mr. Lewis saying to him.
“If there is a way to honor John in the Capitol, it will be done,” Mr. Bishop said. “I certainly believe he is befitting the honor of lying in state.”
But, he added: “John Lewis would want for all people to be safe”
As news of Mr. Lewis’ death spread, honors and praise poured in from around the country. But there was one voice members of the caucus said they did not wish to hear from: the president of the United States.
Ms. Bass and other Congressional Black Caucus members said they would prefer it if President Trump, who insulted Mr. Lewis even before he was inaugurated, would avoid talking about him in death. Mr. Trump posted on Twitter Saturday that he was, “Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing.”
“Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family,” Mr. Trump wrote.
“I don’t want him to speak about John Lewis,” Ms. Bass said. “I don’t want him to have a microphone where he talks about John Lewis, because I believe he is incapable of showing the proper respect. I don’t believe he has the capacity to have an ounce of empathy.”
Ms. Beatty agreed.
“If you don’t have something good to say about a person when they’re living, don’t make comments about them when they’re gone,” Ms. Beatty said. “Silence would the best thing for him at this moment.”