WASHINGTON D.C — It’s not every day when a funeral director is asked to escort someone they were close to, through a full week of honors in three different locations.
Willie Watkins, his brothers Darrell and Sylvania and his 23-year old daughter Ferris told Channel 2′s Dave Huddleston in Washington D.C that caring for Congressman John Lewis this week is humbling, especially since the family knew him personally.
Willie Watkins says he grew up in the funeral business. In 1982, he opened his eponymous funeral home in Atlanta’s historic West End community. Now, honoring life and celebrating entry to the promised land is a family business.
“This is a ministry. Our family, we take it and with God’s strength. And God gives us the will to do what we need to do.” Watkins told Huddleston. “This is something we love doing. I brought them in as a family to build a family business again, it’s a labor of love.”
The Watkins family’s “Labor of Love” became very personal last week when the families of Reverend C.T. Vivian and Congressman Lewis asked them to handle the ceremonies honoring both men.
Once the finished with Vivian’s “Last Mile” through the Sweet Auburn district along with his “Home-going”, they traveled to Alabama to being honoring Lewis.
“When you think about a black water fountain and a white water fountain. When you think about all these gentlemen and women, as well, have done and you want to give them the most humblest and dignified service as possible,” Darrell Watkins said.
Darrell said they honored Lewis’ fight for voting rights by bringing him across the Edmond Pettus bridge one last time. He says he was humbled to drive the horse drawn “Caisson” carrying Lewis and made a point to stand before crossing the bridge.
“He stood up for me. He took a blow for me and my sons and my daughters, my nieces, my nephews, so it was to honor not just him but all those great Civil Rights people and what they’ve done,” Darrell Watkins said.
The family helped with other details, like rose petals to symbolize the blood of protesters, which included Lewis, beaten during the Bloody Sunday march in 1965.
“And when we crossed over, my brother Willie said we’re going to take flowers, a single rose to signify he crossed over not only Edmond Pettus bridge but he crossed over into God’s heavenly bridge,” Darrell Watkins said.
“We had connections with them, these are people I called Uncle Joe and Uncle John” Ferris Watkins said. “I was there with him a week before he passed. It was just an honor to be a part of it.”
Willie’s daughter, 23-year old Ferris, traveled in the hearse carrying Lewis on his procession through the streets of Washington D.C. Monday.
Past the Lincoln Memorial where Lewis spoke to hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington and through crowds at Black Lives Matter Plaza, where the next generation continues the fight for equality.
“This was definitely an experience and one that I will cherish and remember for a lifetime,” Ferris Watkins said.
Sylvania Watkins says the moment lawmakers circled Lewis’ flag draped casket in the Capitol Rotunda, he knew it was another curated moment for Lewis, who was a man of the people.
“I think it’s just a level of class for Congressman John Lewis. I believe everyone was looking there in awe,” Sylvania Watkins said.
The family is aware their work is still unfinished. They’re escorting Lewis back to Atlanta where we are sure to see many more moments meant to honor a hero and inspiration to many in mourning.
“I think about this thing that our mom would tell us, if a task has once begun never leave it until it’s done. Whether the label, big or small do it well or not at all. So we’re going to do this well for Congressman John Lewis,” Sylvania Watkins said.
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