In her own quiet and dignified manner, Lillian Miles Lewis lived her life as a testament to how people of all creeds and races should treat one another. In the process, she exemplified unwavering support and devotion to her family, never failing to embrace youth who sometimes just needed that extra motherly touch.
Such were the sentiments shared Monday, Jan. 7 among mourners – including a slate of local and national politicians and luminaries from the civil rights movement – who crowded the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where the legacy of Mrs. Lewis, married 44 years to the distinguished Georgia Congressman John Lewis, was memorialized.
"As a child, I felt blessed because I believed that when I was born, God had provided me with two sets of parents – my own and my godparents, John and Lillian Lewis," said Michael Julian Bond, a member of the Atlanta City Council. "Mrs. Lewis was an extraordinary woman – beautiful in spirit and in possession of a razor-sharp intellect. In watching her as I grew up, it was easy to see why Congressman Lewis fell in love with this astounding gentlewoman."
Council President Ceasar Mitchell nodded in agreement. Expressing his sadness over Mrs. Lewis's passing at age 73 on Dec. 31 at Emory University Hospital, Mitchell added that not only was she a devoted wife to the congressman, but that she was also actively involved in politics and the community.
"She and Congressman Lewis are a wonderful example of a couple dedicated to both service and each other," Mitchell said. "As we celebrate her legacy today, I want to extend my heartfelt condolences to her family and those whose lives she touched."
Among the cadre of other local leaders paying their final respects to the kindly woman who carried herself with "inspiring dignity," were current and former Atlanta mayors Kasim Reed, Andrew Young, Shirley Franklin and Bill Campbell, respectively. Out-of-town notables included House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, as well as Congress members Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, John Conyers of Michigan and Shelia Jackson Lee of Texas. Georgia state senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss were also in attendance.
The Lewises were married in December 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church by the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. John-Miles Lewis is their only child.
Mrs. Lewis's close friend Xernona Clayton Brady, who introduced the couple to each other in 1967 during a NewYear's Eve party, shared a touching remembrance that at times, evoked non-restrained laughter. In conclusion, Brady added that while "too many people come into the world and simply take up space, Lillian was born in this world but she enhanced her space."
Others like the Rev. Jesse Jackson recalled the Los Angeles native who encouraged her husband to go into politics, and taught in Nigeria in 1960 in a student program before returning to Africa in the Peace Corps as a "peace-loving, freedom-fighting woman."
Cynthia King Farris, sister of Martin Luther King, Jr., commented that, "I doubt any member of Congress had a better-informed spouse."
Aside from her work counseling her husband, Mrs. Lewis, was instrumental in the creation of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition (AJC), where she helped plan programs and visited schools during MLK Week celebrations.
Sherry Frank, a former Atlanta AJC director, recalled Mrs. Lewis's commitment toward the organization's programs on Jewish ties to Israel and Black ties to Africa.
"She was so knowledgeable about the world and proud to bring her Atlanta University scholars from Africa to these programs to educate us and build bridges of understanding," said Frank.
Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the NACCP, said he'd met Mrs. Lewis on several occasions and always felt she was a warm and down-to-earth person.
"She was a great supporter of her husband, whom you could tell right away that she loved very much," said Shelton. "It was always a joy to see them together, as you could just feel the love between them. She was truly a very nice, very friendly person."