Former presidents, colleagues and old friends came together to honor Congressman John Lewis at his funeral in Atlanta on Thursday. Civil rights activist Xernona Clayton delivered some of the most personal remarks — describing Lewis as a devoted husband and father, and sharing the story of how he and his wife, Lillian Miles, met and fell in love.
Speaking to the guests who gathered at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, Clayton said she wanted to talk about Lewis "before he became famous."
Clayton said she met Lewis when she began working for Dr. King, and it was around that time she met Lillian Miles, Lewis' future wife. "We were all involved in the same quest for equity and justice in this America," she said. "And I got to see him all the time and I admired his fervor and all of his tenacity."
Knowing Miles was single, Clayton wanted to set her up with "a good man." She called Miles "highly intellectual, well-traveled, well-educated."
"I wanted her to have someone who really would appreciate her skills and her talent," Clayton said. "So, I looked around and decided that I liked John." But there was a catch — Miles didn't like him at first.
"She thought he was kind of slow. And I said, 'Lillian, he is busy. He is fighting the evils of the world,'" Clayton said. "I decided, 'Girl, listen, this boy is going places so let's see what we can do to keep this thing moving.'"
Clayton took it upon herself to get the two together by having Miles bring him flowers when he was in the hospital for an exam. When they found another young woman already there visiting, Clayton had to rethink her plan. She decided to set them up at a New Year's Eve party at her home.
"Since John didn't have a date on New Year's Eve, I knew he didn't have a commitment [to anyone else]," Clayton said. "Because everyone has a date on New Year's Eve."
Clayton, who said she was known for throwing big parties, only invited the two of them to the shindig. "When they got to my house there was only room for the three of us. The two of them and me," she said, receiving laughter from the crowd.
After that surprise set-up, Lewis and Miles started dating. So Clayton took on her next challenge: getting them to tie the knot. "I set a date, got her dress ready, and we are going to have a wedding," Clayton said, joking that Lewis didn't even have an opportunity to propose, "we just had a wedding."
The couple wed at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1968.
When they had their son, John-Miles Lewis, Clayton, the couple's witty friend, became his godmother. During her eulogy, she asked John-Miles, their only child, to stand.
"I want you to know they were very happy," Clayton said about the couple, adding that even though Lillian didn't like politics, she picked it up when her husband expressed an interest.
"Lillian got in there and became his strongest supporter. I mean, she did everything. Everything to make his successes work for him — and it did."
John Lewis represented Georgia's 5th Congressional District from 1987 until his death. Lillian Miles Lewis, an educator and the director of external affairs in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at Clark Atlanta University, died in 2012 at the age of 73.
They were married for about 43 years. "That is not a bad record, is it?" Clayton said. "They were happy and Lillian gave him every support a wife could ever give a partner. And they gave love to John-Miles in the process."