Former President Barack Obama delivered a powerful eulogy at the funeral service for the late congressman and renowned civil rights leader John Lewis on Thursday, remembering the inspirational figure as a man who “believed that, in all of us, there is a capacity for great courage.”
Preceded by remarks from Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and member’s of Lewis’ family, staff, constituency and congregation, as well as an impassioned performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” by Jennifer Holliday, Obama took the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, to pay tribute to a great man, mentor, leader, and politician.
“It is a great honor to be back at at the pulpit of its greatest pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to pay my respects to perhaps his finest disciple, an American whose faith was tested again and again to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance, John Robert Lewis,” Obama said during his opening remarks.
“I’ve come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom… John Lewis did not hesitate. He kept on getting onboard buses and sitting at lunch counters. Got his mugshot taken again and again, marched again and again, on a mission to change America.”
Lewis died on July 17, following a battle with pancreatic cancer in December. He was 80 years old and was the last surviving speaker from the historic March on Washington in 1963. The congressman was also a leader of the legendary march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, where he and other civil rights leaders like Dr. King and Rev. Hosea Williams led a group of over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an event which later became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
When the group reached the other side, they were ordered to disperse by Alabama State Troopers, who then began tear-gassing and beating the protesters with nightsticks. Lewis’ skull was fractured, and he feared for his life, but escaped across the bridge back to Selma to continue the fight.
“When John woke up and checked himself out of the hospital, he would make sure that the world saw a movement that was, as the scripture says, hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed,” Obama recalled. “What a revolutionary notion, this idea that ordinary people, a young kid from Troy, can stand up to the powers and principalities and say, ‘No, this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just. We can do better.”
“America was built by John Lewises. He, as much as anyone in our history, brought his country a little bit closer to our highest ideas, and someday when we do finish that long journey towards freedom, when we do form that more perfect union…John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”
Obama also used his speech to make perhaps one of his strongest indictments yet of the current administration and political climate, comparing the past fights of the civil rights movement to the ongoing protests and mission of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I know this is a celebration of John’s life, there are some who might say we shouldn’t dwell on such things,” he noted. “But that’s why I’m talking about it. John Lewis devoted this time on this earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in America that we’re seeing circulate right now.
“Bull Conner may be gone, but today, we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrations. We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot, but even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting, by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the postal service in the run up to an election that’s going be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick.”
In 2015, Lewis and Obama crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge together to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march. And on July 26, Lewis made the journey one last time, as his casket was carried across the bridge in a horse-drawn caisson.
“John always saw the best in us, and he never gave up, and never stopped speaking out,” Obama said, remembering his last conversation with the late activist and leader this summer over Zoom, where the pair met with young organizers and aspiring politicians. “He was a good and kind and gentle man, and he believed in us, even when we didn’t believe in ourselves.
One of Lewis’ final acts of leadership was penning an op-ed for the New York Times, which he requested be run on the day of his funeral. His final public words to America recall his long history of fighting for the greater good, urging all who read it to understand his core belief, that “ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war,” Lewis wrote. “So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
“What a gift John Lewis was,” Obama concluded in his speech on Thursday. “We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while and show us the way.”
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