Former president Barack Obama gave a searing eulogy for John Lewis, urging Americans to honor the legacy of a civil rights giant by engaging in the “good trouble” that leads to a more perfect democracy in the face of powerful institutions that seek to oppress.
Obama spoke at the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church during the funeral for Lewis in Atlanta on Thursday, where he said he was there because he owed a debt to the 16-term congressman and his “forceful vision of freedom.” Obama, the country’s first Black president, remarked on the instructions given to Americans enshrined in the constitution to create a “more perfect union.”
“John never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country can do,” Obama said. “I mentioned in the statement the day John passed, the thing about John was just how gentle and humble he was. And despite this storied, remarkable career, he treated everyone with kindness and respect because it was innate to him. This idea that any of us can do what he did, if we’re willing to persevere.”
The former president spoke on the current threat to voting rights in America, a cause that Lewis nearly gave his life for as a young man, and the responsibility citizens have to continue to engage in the fight for equality.
The private funeral, where former President Barack Obama gave the eulogy, began at 11 a.m. at the church that was once led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We have come to say goodbye to our friend in these difficult days,” the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor, said. “Come on, let the nation celebrate, let the angels rejoice … John Lewis, the boy from Troy, the conscience of the Congress.”
Lewis, who represented Atlanta in the House of Representatives after serving as a young leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, died on July 17 following a monthslong battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80.
In addition to Obama’s eulogy, former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton spoke at the funeral that will conclude memorial services held for Lewis over six days in several cities.
Bush said Lewis was “called to be a minister” at a young age and talked about his caring for chickens when he was younger. He joked that Lewis had once said that “his first congregation of chickens listened to him more closely than some of his colleagues in Congress.”
The former president went on to say, “John Lewis believed in the Lord, he believed in humanity and he believed in America.”
“It’s important that all of us who loved him remember that he was after all a human being,” he said. “A man, like all other humans, born with strengths that he made the most of when many don’t. Born with weaknesses that he worked hard to beat down when many can’t.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was tearful as she recalled that Lewis lay in state on the same platform made in 1865 to hold the body of President Abraham Lincoln.
Activist James M. Lawson also spoke, and former Atlanta Mayor William Craig Campbell, and Lewis’ niece were also on the program. President Donald Trump will not be in attendance.
Bernice King, a daughter of the Martin Luther King Jr., said a prayer at the service and called Lewis a“nonviolent warrior who fought for true peace.”
“We are entirely grateful, oh God, that he lived among us for four score years and demonstrated on that bridge that physical force is no match for soul force,” she said.
Lewis’ Deputy Chief of Staff Jamila Thompson painted a picture of the congressman as a man who held his staff to the highest standard, encouraging them to read poetry, speeches and scripture to inform themselves. Lewis was always in their “business,” present for their big life moments, and made sure they prioritized their families.
“He felt that we needed to know and study our history to make sure that we never repeated it,” Thompson said. “He was both human and divine. It is so difficult to explain the magnitude, the genius, the gentle grace of this man. “
Following the funeral, there will be a burial at South-View cemetery where Lewis will be laid to rest next to his wife, Lillian.
Hours before the funeral began, The New York Times published an essay written by Lewis shortly before he died. He wanted it to be published on the day of his funeral.
“While my time here has come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me,” he wrote in response to the recent protests nationally and abroad sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, who were all Black.
“You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society,” he wrote. “Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.”
Lewis recalled that when he was young and searching he heard King’s voice on “an old radio.”
“He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence,” Lewis wrote. “He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice.”
He ended his essay by saying, “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.”
Earlier this week, Lewis lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers and members of the public paid respects. Ceremonies honoring his legacy were also held in Selma and his hometown of Troy, Alabama.
News – Obama gives fiery eulogy as John Lewis honored at funeral in MLK’s Atlanta church