Obama, speaking for 40 minutes at the pulpit where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, tied Lewis’s early life as a Freedom Rider to the nationwide protests that followed the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. He compared today’s federal agents using tear gas against peaceful protesters, an action that Trump has cheered on, to the same attacks Lewis faced on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
“Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” the nation’s first Black president said at Lewis’s final memorial service. “George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. 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.”
Obama was one of three former presidents — along with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — to honor the late congressman at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. A fourth, 95-year-old Jimmy Carter, too frail to travel, sent a tribute note read from the podium.
The service came just hours after Trump, the only living president not to participate in any Lewis tribute, suggested that the November elections should be delayed because he did not trust the efficacy of mail-in voting, which millions of voters have embraced as a safe way to cast ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Speakers seized on those remarks to call for voters to stand up against Trump administration efforts to thwart mail ballots, prompting Clinton to paraphrase a prior tribute from a Lewis friend.
“Keep moving to the ballot box, even if it’s a mailbox,” Clinton said.
Bush, speaking before Clinton and Obama, praised Lewis’s life story of rising from “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, where he was beaten by state troopers in protesting for voting rights, to the halls of Congress. Without mentioning Trump by name, Bush praised his ability to maintain a good relationship with Lewis despite many deep political differences.
“In the America John Lewis fought for, and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable and evidence of democracy in action. We the people, including congressmen and presidents, can have differing views on how to protect our union, while sharing the conviction that our nation, however flawed, is at heart a good and noble one,” Bush said, eliciting applause.
Lewis (D-Ga.), who served more than three decades in Congress, died July 17 at the age of 80. He had pancreatic cancer.
The service, completing a near week-long series of tributes from Alabama to Washington, served as an echo to the funeral of the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) after his death in August 2018, when a clutch of traditional conservatives implored today’s Republicans to reclaim their party from Trump’s “America First” vision.
But at that service, as Bush and Obama spoke at Washington’s Washington National Cathedral, Obama held back from forcefully attacking the current president.
He did not hold back Thursday.
Obama connected Trump to Wallace — the former Alabama governor who led the segregation movement — without ever saying the current president’s name.
Obama accused the current administration of “even undermining the Postal Service” as an effort to block more voters from participating in democracy. Without naming his former vice president, Obama signaled that should voters elect Joe Biden and give Democrats the Senate majority, they should abolish the 60-vote filibuster in the Senate to advance voting rights.
“A Jim Crow relic,” the former president said.
Obama delivered the eulogy at a service marked by speeches, songs, prayers and the tolling of a bell. Speaker after speaker pleaded for Americans to carry on Lewis’s legacy by voting in November.
Standing before Lewis’s flag-draped casket, Obama told the story of Lewis’s courage on his first “freedom” ride on a bus, an unofficial test taken with a Black friend to set the stage for the broader Freedom Ride protests on segregated buses in the South.
“Imagine the courage of two people Malia’s age, younger than my oldest daughter, on their own,” the former president said. “John was only 20 years old. But he pushed all 20 of those years to the center of the table, betting everything — all of it — that his example could challenge centuries of convention and generations of brutal violence.”
Obama noted that the journey to fulfill Lewis’s dream of a better nation might be decades away, but its foundation has been built by the late congressman. “John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America,” Obama said.
In his remarks, Clinton knocked Trump’s recent assertions that he might not accept the November results if he loses, retelling the story of how Lewis accepted defeat to a more aggressive activist, Stokely Carmichael, to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the late 1960s. “We are here today because he had the kind of character he showed when he lost an election,” Clinton said to applause.
Clinton noted that Lewis got in one last posthumous word through an essay published Thursday — “marching orders,” he said — that discussed Lewis’s last public appearance, at the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington in June.
The New York Times, which printed the essay, said it was written shortly before Lewis’s death and that he wanted it to be published on the day of his funeral.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, the officiant, started the service by noting that amid “much political cynicism and narcissism . . . here lies a true American patriot.”
Warnock, the senior pastor of the church once headed by King, is the leading Democratic candidate for a November special election for one of Georgia’s Senate seats, a potential pickup that would tip the majority away from Trump’s Republicans.
In the days since Lewis’s death, there have been renewed calls for Congress to act on voting rights and name the legislation in Lewis’s honor. In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a crucial component of the landmark law, ruling that Congress had not taken into account the nation’s racial progress when citing certain states for federal oversight. The House passed legislation in December to restore those protections, but the bill has languished in the GOP-led Senate.
Members of Congress, family members and the many speakers attending the hours-long service wore masks and sat at a distance in the pews, precautions dictated by the pandemic.
Obama recounted his final conversation with Lewis, which came two days before the congressman’s appearance at BLM Plaza in Washington. They had just finished a Zoom town hall with young activists and, over their video connection, Lewis told Obama how inspired he was by this new crop of activists.
“John, those are your children,” Obama recalled telling him.
In his essay, Lewis noted that he was admitted to the hospital the day after visiting the plaza. But, he said, “I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.”
Lewis recounted his work and struggles in the early days of the civil rights movement and urged others to continue the fight to “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,” he 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.”