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Rights icon Lewis in a final solemn crossing of an Alabama bridge

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Selma (United States) (AFP)

In a deeply symbolic tribute, a lone caisson drawn by two black horses on Sunday slowly carried the body of John Lewis across the Alabama bridge where in 1965 a policeman fractured his skull during a protest that helped forge his reputation as a fearless civil rights leader.

The procession across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the city of Selma came on the second of six days of solemn commemorations for the revered rights activist and 17-term Georgia congressman, who died of cancer on July 17 at age 80.

It also came in a year when "Black Lives Matter" protests against police brutality have brought thousands onto US streets, underscoring the still-raw depths of the country's racial history.

The procession on a warm and sunny Sunday morning was saluted by a line of Alabama state troopers -- a starkly different reception from what Lewis received in the March 7, 1965 march in Selma, when a trooper beat the then-25-year-old to the ground with a nightstick, nearly killing him.

That day's march, later dubbed "Bloody Sunday," was considered a turning point in the rights movement. Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led hundreds of marchers across the bridge along with fellow activist Hosea Williams.

When police met them and ordered them to disperse, the group knelt in prayer. Police then charged, swinging billy clubs. The day's events left a scar on Lewis's head that he bore for the rest of his life.

- 'Keep the faith' -

The horse-drawn wagon carrying Lewis on Sunday paused briefly at the midpoint -- where the African-American driver, dressed in traditional black tails, briefly removed his top hat in respect -- before completing the crossing over the bridge, strewn earlier with rose petals. Lewis's casket was draped in an American flag.

Walking a short distance behind were family members, some wearing black "Good trouble" T-shirts in honor of Lewis's call for constructive protest.

On the far side, well-wishers saluted the coffin, singing the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."

The casket was then transferred by military honor guard into a hearse, to lead a procession through the city of Montgomery before arriving at the State Capitol around 2:00 pm (1800 GMT) for public viewing two hours later, according to local media.

The tributes will move Monday to the US Capitol, where Lewis will lie in state through Tuesday evening, a rarely granted honor.

There, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday on CBS, Lewis will be "sharing that resting place with Abraham Lincoln," the man who ended slavery in the US.

On Sunday, a diverse crowd of well-wishers -- some who had come from hundreds of miles away -- began assembling near the bridge hours early. Many wore protective masks.

Lewis had last appeared there in March, to mark the 55th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday." Though ill from the pancreatic cancer that killed him, he had insisted on being present.

Hoisted on the shoulders of two supporters, he told the crowd, "We cannot give up now, we cannot give in."

"We must keep the faith. Keep the eyes on the prize. We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before."

Lewis grew up in the Alabama city of Troy. His parents were sharecroppers, and he once worked in a cotton field. While attending segregated schools, Lewis was inspired by the peaceful protests of rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

On Thursday, solemn commemorations for Lewis will end in Atlanta, Georgia, where he will be remembered in a private service in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King once preached. Lewis's burial will follow.

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