On a day of uplifting, often emotional speeches for the late Rep. John Lewis — including an exceptionally moving address from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had to pause twice to blink back tears — former president Barack Obama’s skill behind a lectern was on full display. He is in ordinary times a fine eulogist, but in the peculiar, frightening and chaotic times in which we live, he provided presidential gravitas and reminded us that the almost four-year tragedy of President Trump may soon be over. That we can have a decent, honorable president again.

Obama elegantly identified Lewis as someone who worked to fulfill America’s foundational creed. “We’re born with instructions: to form a more perfect union,” he said. “Explicit in those words is the idea that we’re imperfect.” At a time when Republicans are hanging on to an America that never was and offering a version of history scrubbed of imperfections, it was important to emphasize that “America” was not set in stone in 1776 — or even in 1965, when Lewis risked his life at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis, Obama said, “vindicated the faith in our founding.” He explained: "The idea that any of us, ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo. . . . What a radical idea. What a revolutionary notion.”

While Obama’s more pointed comments attracted the most attention, we shouldn’t overlook this timely affirmation that the United States is in a constant state of rebirth and is not the province of one race or religion. Trump and his federal shock troops, like the Alabama state troopers at the bridge in 1965, are engaged in a futile effort to hold back a popular movement fueled by the radical American ideal that each generation gets the chance to redeem the country and push for greater inclusion, equality and freedom.

Obama did not hold back. In a blunt reference to Trump and racial unrest, he said that Lewis “knew from his own life that progress is fragile, that we have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history. Of our own history.” He continued: “Where there are whirlpools of violence and hatred and despair, that can always rise again. Bull Connor 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 demonstrators.” In case you had any doubt, he is calling out Trump as the latest purveyor of white nationalism.

Obama also drew a straight line from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, passed in large measure as a result of the images from the Edmund Pettus Bridge: “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 darnedest 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 to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick,” Obama said. In other words: Republicans are no better than the vote suppressors of the Jim Crow era.

Obama also put the Black Lives Matter protests in the lineage of civil rights protests dating back to the 1960s. “We see it outside our windows in big cities and rural towns. In men and women, young and old, straight Americans and LGBTQ Americans, Blacks, who long for equal treatment and whites, who can no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of their fellow Americans,” Obama declared. “We see it in everybody doing the hard work of overcoming complacency, of overcoming our own fears and our own prejudices, our own hatreds. You see it in people trying to be better, truer versions of ourselves.”

Obama then leaned into the controversial topic of the filibuster, on which Democrats are divided:

Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better by making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance. By adding polling places and expanding early voting and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are somebody who’s working in a factory or you’re a single mom, who’s got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot. By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C., and in Puerto Rico. They’re Americans. By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering, so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around.
And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.

Obama is not too far ahead of the presumptive Democratic nominee. Former vice president Joe Biden recently said something similar: "I think it’s gonna depend on how obstreperous they become,” he told a group of journalists recently. “I have not supported the elimination of the filibuster because it’s been used as often . . . the other way around [for Republicans’ benefit], but I think you have to just take a look at it.”

In sum, Obama delivered a thundering rebuke to Republicans who consider peaceful demonstrators to be a threat to America (as Attorney General William P. Barr has said) rather than its personification. He summoned us to speak plainly: The notion that we are free of systematic racism is untrue, and ignoring reality is not the sign of a patriot. The patriots are those who seek to cleanse America of its original sin.

Obama’s tough-love message couldn’t have come at a better time: If you want a democracy, you better fight for it. Let’s hope America is listening.

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Nell Irvin Painter, author of "The History of White People," explains how the language of whiteness — and its meaning — has evolved. (The Washington Post)

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