After ceremonies in Alabama and Washington D.C., Rep. John Lewis was honored during a televised funeral held at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on Thursday (July 30). Former President Barack Obama delivered a passionate eulogy detailing everything from Lewis’ childhood in Alabama to his fight for civil rights, and work in Congress.
“It is a great honor to be back at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the pulpit of its greatest pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to pay my respects to perhaps his finest disciple,” Obama said. “I’ve come here today, because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom.”
The ex-POTUS outlined some of Lewis’ many achievements, such as helping to organize sit-ins and “Freedom Rides,” heading the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, organizing the 1960 Nashville campaign, leading the march in Selma, being the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, joining Congress, and mentoring young people.
“He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, a longing do what’s right, a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect,” Obama said. “So many of us lose that sense. It’s taught out of us. We start feeling as if, in fact, we can’t afford to extend kindness or decency to other people, that we’re better off if we’re above other people and looking down on them.
“And so often that’s encouraged in our culture. But John always said that he saw the best in us, that he never gave up, he never stopped speaking out because he saw the best in us. He believed in us even when we didn’t believe in ourselves, and as a Congressman he didn’t rest.”
Obama drew parallels between the civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, touched on police brutality and racial injustice, and challenged lawmakers to revitalize the Voting Rights Act, and rename it after Lewis. He also called for an end to voter suppression tactics and “partisan gerrymandering.”
“As long as young people are protesting in the streets, hoping real change takes hold..we can’t casually abandon them at the ballot box, not when few elections have been as urgent on so many levels as this one,” he remarked noting that the 2020 presidential election can’t be treated like an “errand to run.”
Lastly, Obama spoke to fostering a friendship with one of his personal heroes. “I was proud that John Lewis was a friend of mine. I met him when I was in law school; he came to speak, and I went up and I said, ‘Mr. Lewis, you are one my heroes,’” recalled Obama. “What inspired me more than anything as a young man is to see what you and [fellow civil rights activists] James Lawson, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, others did. He got that kind of ‘Aw, shucks, thank you very much.’ Next time I saw him, I’d been elected to the United States Senate and I told him, ‘I’m here because of you.’ And on Inauguration Day 2008, 2009, he was one of the first people I greeted and hugged on that stand and I told him, ‘This is your day, too.’”
A few themes of the ceremony were Lewis’ work ethic, his unwavering courage, kindness, and commitment to equality.
The three-and-a-half hour celebration of life included words from fellow civil rights leader Xernon Clayton, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Rev. Bernice King; appearances from former First Ladies Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, and performances by Jennifer Holiday, and gospel icons BeBe Winans and Bishop Marvin Winans.
Watch Obama’s full speech below.