Congressman John Lewis remembered at funeral service

By Grace Segers, Melissa Quinn

Updated on: July 30, 2020 / 9:24 PM
/ CBS NEWS

Three former presidents came together to honor Congressman John Lewis at his funeral in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday, completing a week of memorial services for the longtime lawmaker and civil rights icon.

Former President Barack Obama delivered a rousing eulogy celebrating Lewis’ life. “He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals,” Mr. Obama said.

He addressed the issue that defined Lewis’ legacy, calling on Congress to act on voting rights. “Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law he was willing to die for,” Mr. Obama said, to an ovation at the funeral. He added, “John wouldn’t want us to stop there. Once we pass it, we should keep marching to make it even better,” listing new provisions like automatic registration and making Election Day a national holiday.

Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, too, paid homage to Lewis, who died earlier this month at age 80.

Mr. Bush, the first among the living presidents to pay homage to Lewis, said Americans live in a country that is better today because of the late congressman.

“John Lewis always looked outward, not inward. He always thought of others. He always believed in preaching the gospel, in word and in deed, insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope,” Mr. Bush said. “John Lewis believed in the Lord. He believed in humanity, and he believed in America.”

Mr. Clinton noted that Lewis “left us with marching orders” in his op-ed in the New York Times, published on the day of his funeral. In the piece, Lewis urged Americans to continue to get into “good trouble.” The former president suggested that Americans honor this request: “Salute, suit up, and march on.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reflected on Lewis’ 33 years in Congress, during which he represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, and the lessons he taught the legislative body. “When he spoke, people listened. When he led, people followed. We loved him very much,” Pelosi said. “We wave goodbye to this person, our leader, our friend.”

The funeral follows nearly a week of tributes including a memorial service in Troy, Alabama, on Saturday, and a final trip across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Sunday — the same bridge where he was beaten by Alabama state troopers police during the march to Montgomery on March 7, 1965, which became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Lewis’ casket then traveled to Washington, D.C., where he was commemorated at a service at the U.S. Capitol and was the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

Lewis was the youngest person to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, and was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke in June to CBS News about his activism in the 1960s.

“Yes, I was beaten, left bloody and unconscious. But I never became bitter or hostile, never gave up. I believe that somehow and some way if it becomes necessary to use our bodies to help redeem the soul of a nation, then we must do it,” Lewis said.

A military honor guard carried Lewis’ casket past the pews of political figures, family members and other mourners out of Ebenezer Baptist Church and placed it into an awaiting hearse. Lewis will be buried at South View Cemetery in Atlanta.

In a powerful eulogy, former President Obama commended Lewis’ lifetime of activism and urged Americans to carry on his legacy by demanding new voting rights legislation. He also voiced support for eliminating the filibuster in order to pass these reforms.

“You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for,” Mr. Obama said. He called on Congress to pass reforms including allowing felons to vote, making Election Day a federal holiday and implementing automatic voter registration. He also called the Senate filibuster a “Jim Crow relic,” and called for eliminating it to make voting rights reform easier.

Mr. Obama offered a critique of the injustice he currently sees in the nation, alluding to the death of George Floyd and the treatment of peaceful demonstrators in the protests that ensued.

“Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” Mr. Obama said. “George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents using 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 darnedest to discourage people from voting.” 

Mr. Obama said that Lewis knew that maintaining “democracy isn’t automatic; it has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to.”

“Like John, we don’t have to choose between protest and politics. It’s not an either/or situation, it’s a both/and situation,” Mr. Obama continued. He excoriated the states that raised obstacles to voting after the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, saying it was “not a mystery or an accident” that these states mainly made it difficult for minority Americans to vote.

He also spoke in personal terms about his relationship with Lewis, and described the congressman’s early activism, calling Lewis “perhaps (Martin Luther King Jr.’s) finest disciple.”

“I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom,” Mr. Obama, the first Black president, said. He detailed Lewis’ time as a young Freedom Rider working to desegregate buses, praising the courage it took.

“John was only 20 years old, but he pushed all 20 of those years to the center of the table, betting all of it” to challenge the entire infrastructure of society, Mr. Obama said.

He also praised Lewis’ leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, his speech at the 1963 March on Washington, and his march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday “at the ripe old age of 25.” Lewis was beaten and by state troopers and his skull was fractured that day. In an implicit reference to today’s politics and the recent nationwide protests, Mr. Obama noted how cameras had captured the 1965 march.

“This time, the world saw what happened, bore witness to Black Americans who were asking nothing but to be treated like other Americans,” Mr. Obama said. “When John woke up, and checked himself out of the hospital, he would make sure that the world saw a movement that, in the words of Scripture, was hard-pressed on every side but not crushed.”

Mr. Obama called Lewis’ life an “exception” that showed Americans how to fulfill the promises of its founding.

“It vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith, that most American of ideas: 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,” Mr. Obama said. He added that when the U.S. finally forms a perfect union, Lewis would be considered a founding father of that “fuller, fairer, better America.”

“He was a good and kind and gentle man. And he believed in us. Even when we didn’t believe in ourselves,” Mr. Obama said at the end of his speech. “What a gift John Lewis was. We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while, and show us the way.”

Jamila Thompson, Lewis’ deputy chief of staff, spoke on behalf of Lewis’ congressional staff and provided a behind-the-scenes look at working for the civil right icon.

“With Mr. Lewis, he always saw you and made you feel special and worthy,” she said. “I believe he spent every waking moment paying it forward.”

Thompson told the congregation Lewis welcomed families and friends into their office, “making them fall equally in awe of his greatness.” But he also “enjoyed stirring things up,” she said.

Thompson said Lewis woke up early each day and called his memory a “living encyclopedia.” On complicated policy matters, Lewis would “make it accessible and real to the people,” she said.

“The record should be clear on his immense pride in representing Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. He was so proud to represent metro Atlanta, all of its cities, all of its counties and all of its people,” Thompson said. “He was on a mission to serve, to make them feel heard, respected and represented, regardless of where they fell on the political spectrum. The constituents were our compass.”

Thompson said she and Lewis’ staff are heartbroken and lost, but said “we cannot, we must not get lost in the sea of despair.”

She closed by encouraging mourners to “be kind, be mindful, recognize the dignity and the worth of every human being, be the best version of yourself, be informed, stay engaged — even though the work is hard — and if you are of age and eligible, for the love of God, please vote.”

President Jimmy Carter, who did not attend Lewis’ funeral in person, wrote a letter paying respects to the congressman, which was read by Reverend Raphael Warnock.

“Throughout his remarkable life, John has been a blessing to countless people, We are proud to be among those whose lives he has touched,” Carter wrote. “While his achievements are enjoyed by all Americans, we Georgians know him as our neighbor, friend and representative, His enormous contributions will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.”

Pelosi reflected on Lewis’ 33 years in Congress, during which he represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, and the lessons the civil rights icon left with the legislative body.

“When he spoke, people listened. When he led, people followed. We loved him very much,” Pelosi said. “We wave goodbye to this person, our leader, our friend.”

The California Democrat said 50 members of Congress were in attendance to honor Lewis’ life, and she asked those lawmakers stand.

“We come with a flag flown over the Capitol the night that John passed,” Pelosi said, pausing as she began to choke up. “When this flag flew there, it said goodbye, it waved goodbye to John, our friend, our mentor, our colleague, this beautiful man that we all had the privilege of serving with in the Congress of the United States.”

Pelosi said the congressman “wanted us to see the civil rights movement and the rest through his eyes.”

“He told us so many stories, he taught us so much and he took us to Selma,” she said, adding that Lewis “insisted on the truth” wherever he went, including in Congress.

Pelosi, too, referenced Lewis’ final words to the American people in the pages of the New York Times and said the late congressman “always worked for a more perfect union” and to inspire the country’s younger generations.

The House speaker recalled the final night Lewis laid in state in the U.S. Capitol, when a double rainbow appeared across the sky in Washington, D.C., and said “he was telling us, I’m home in heaven.”

“We always knew he worked on the side of the angels, and now he is with them,” she said. “May he rest in peace.”

In his eulogy, former President Bill Clinton referred to Lewis as “a man I loved for a long time.” Mr. Clinton reminisced about Lewis’ humanity, and how this made him a great, as well as a good man.

“I think it’s important for all of us who loved him to remember that he was, after all, a human being,” Mr. Clinton said. “John Lewis was many things, but he was a man,” Clinton later added.

He told an anecdote about how Lewis lost the chairmanship of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a young man, and observed that this taught him the importance of humility.

“We’re here today because he had the kind of character he showed when he lost an election,” Mr. Clinton said, to applause.

Lewis “was here on a mission” to advocate for civil rights, Mr. Clinton said, and he noted that Lewis “left us with marching orders” in his op-ed in the New York Times, published on the day of his funeral. In the piece, Lewis urged Americans to continue to get into “good trouble.” The former president suggested that Americans honor this request: “Salute, suit up, and march on.”

Former President George W. Bush was the first among the living presidents in attendance to pay tribute to Lewis, saying Americans live in a country that is better today because of the late congressman and “his abiding faith in the power of God, in the power of democracy and in the power of love to lift us all to a higher ground.”

“The story that began in Troy isn’t ending here today, nor is the work,” Mr. Bush said, adding Lewis will “live forever in the heart of Americans who act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with their God.”

Mr. Bush began by recalling Lewis’ days as a young boy growing up in Alabama who would preach to his chickens and joked that his refusal to eat one of the birds in his flock “was his first act of nonviolent protest.”

“John Lewis always looked outward, not inward. He always thought of others. He always believed in preaching the gospel, in word and in deed, insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope,” Mr. Bush said. “John Lewis believed in the Lord. He believed in humanity, and he believed in America.”

The 43rd president noted that while he and Lewis had their disagreements, such disagreements are cornerstones of a democracy.

“In the America John Lewis fought for and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action,” Mr. Bush said. “We the people including congressmen and presidents can have differing views on how to perfect our union while sharing the conviction that our nation, however flawed, is at heart a good and noble one.”

Reverend James Lawson worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and trained many future leaders of the civil rights movement, including a young John Lewis, in the practice of nonviolence. In sometimes fiery remarks at Lewis’ funeral, Lawson said, “John Lewis practiced the politics that we the people of the U.S. need more desperately than ever before — the politics of the Declaration of Independence, the politics of the preamble to the Constitution of the United States.”

With an impassioned prayer, Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., praised Lewis’ legacy and called on Americans to continue his fight for justice. She asked Congress to shore up voting rights, invoking Lewis’ fight for the passage of the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s.

“Death is not a period that ends this great sentence of life,” she said, quoting her father, “but a comma which punctuates it with a lofty and higher significance.”

King called on the country to get into “good trouble” until there is a livable wage, until there is housing equality, and until there is an end to white supremacy.

“We will continue to get into good trouble as long as you grant us the breath to do so,” King said.

Ahead of the start of Lewis’ funeral, mourners have begun to take their seats inside of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. President Bill Clinton has arrived. 

Among those in attendance are Democratic Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, Congresswoman Val Demings of Florida and 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

As services began to get underway, the bells at Ebenezer Baptist Church and churches around the country rang 80 times to mark Lewis’ 80 years.

In an op-ed written by Lewis shortly before his death and published by the New York Times the day of his funeral, the civil right icon delivered a final message to young Americans as the nation faces a reckoning sparked by the death of George Floyd in late May.

“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe,” Lewis wrote in his op-ed. “In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

The late congressman wrote that in the final days of his life, he was “inspired” by the protests against racial injustice and police brutality that were spurred by Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and said that movement is what drove him to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in downtown Washington, D.C., even though he was admitted to the hospital the day after his visit on June 7.

“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor,” Lewis wrote, noting that “[Till] was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time.”

The late congressman reflected on the lessons he learned from Martin Luther King Jr. and encouraged young Americans to exercise their right to vote, writing “the vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.”

“When historians pick up their pens to write the tory 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.”

Lewis dedicated his life to fighting for civil rights and equality. He grew up in an era of racial segregation in the Deep South, attending seminary in Nashville, where he helped organize sit-ins at segregated lunch places. He was arrested during those demonstrations but continued his commitment to the movement. 

From here, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., he continued working for civil rights as a Freedom Rider, challenging racial segregation at interstate bus terminals, a practice that had been deemed illegal by the Supreme Court, but persisted. 

In 1965, Lewis was among hundreds of activists who marched for voting rights from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery. At one point, the marchers were stopped by 150 Alabama state troopers and other officials who ordered the peaceful protesters to disperse. Barely one minute after a two-minute warning was announced, the authorities descended on the protesters with clubs, tear gas and bullwhips. Lewis suffered a skull fracture as a result. That day became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and it encouraged the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

Even after King’s assassination, Lewis continued to work to ensure minorities could exercise their right to vote. In Congress, he was widely respected by members on both sides of the aisle for his pivotal role in making the nation more equal. 

Lewis remained an advocate for civil rights through the end of his life, telling “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King in June he believed the nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd were a tipping point.

“This feels and looks so different. It is so much more massive and all-inclusive. To see people from all over the world taking to the streets, to the roadways, to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to do what I call ‘getting in trouble,'” Lewis said. “And with a sense of determination and commitment and dedication, there will be no turning back. People now understand what the struggle was all about. It’s another step down the very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”

Lewis also said he hoped the recent protests would show “we are on our way to greater change.”

“It is my hope that we are on our way to greater change. To respect the dignity and the worth of every human being, and it doesn’t matter the color or their background or whether they’re male or female, gay or straight,” Lewis said. “We have come to a point, and said ‘We are one people. We’re one family.’ We all live in the same house — not just American house, but the world house.”

Members of Congress held a memorial service for Lewis at the U.S. Capitol on Monday, after his funeral procession passed landmarks including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House and the Supreme Court.

Those who paid their respects to Lewis at the Capitol included presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, as well as Vice President Mike Pence.

“Under the dome of the U.S. Capitol, we have bid farewell to some of the greatest Americans in our history,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the man she called the “conscience of Congress.” “It is fitting that John Lewis joins this pantheon of patriots resting upon the same catafalque as President Abraham Lincoln.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recalled Lewis speaking at the March on Washington in 1963 and the violence he endured in the fight for civil rights. 

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