July 30, 2020 at 2:06 p.m. EDT
Three former presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — honored the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis on Thursday, with Obama saying that he, like so many Americans, “owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom.”
Obama, the nation’s first Black president, delivered the eulogy at a service in historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta 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.
“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, an American whose faith was tested again and again. To produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance,” Obama said.
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.
Bush, speaking before Clinton and Obama, praised Lewis’s life story and used their political differences, as a GOP president and Democratic congressman, to point to the nation’s strength.
“But 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.
President Trump, who clashed with Lewis early in his White House tenure, did not attend the funeral, nor did he appear at any of the memorial events at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, where Lewis, a 17-term congressman, lay in state.
As he spoke, Clinton took a veiled shot at Trump’s early Thursday tweet suggesting that the elections be delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and his previous suggestions he might not accept the results of the election.
The former president told 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.
The lawmakers, family members and others attending the service wore masks and sat at a distance in the pews, as the coronavirus pandemic has had its impact. Former president Jimmy Carter, 95, who has battled cancer, did not attend but sent a statement honoring Lewis.
Over the years, Obama and Lewis shared some poignant moments, including on Obama’s Inauguration Day in 2009. At a luncheon that day, Lewis handed Obama a copy of his ticket to the history-making event and asked for an autograph.
“It’s because of you, John,” Obama wrote to Lewis.
Shortly before he died, Lewis wrote in an essay that he visited Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington in June because he wanted to see for himself that “truth is marching on” — and he urged activists to continue the fight for civil rights.
“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me,” he said in the essay published Thursday. “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.”
The New York Times, which printed the essay, said it was written shortly before the death of the Georgia Democrat on July 17 at age 80 and that he wanted it to be published on the day of his funeral.
“So much political cynicism and narcissism, here lies a true American patriot,” the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the officiant, said at the start of the service.
Warnock, the senior pastor of the church once headed by Martin Luther King Jr., 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.
Introducing Bush, the first former president to speak, Warnock noted the historic nature of this service. “Only John Lewis could compel three living presidents to come to this house,” Warnock said.
Obama published an essay shortly after Lewis’s death that reminisced about their final private talk in early June, after the lawmaker and the former president had held a virtual town hall with young activists. Lewis told Obama how inspiring the group was.
“I told him that all those young people — of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it,” Obama wrote.
In early June, Lewis visited the stretch of 16th Street in Washington leading to the White House where “Black Lives Matter” had been painted in giant letters after weeks of protests following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd.
Accompanied by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Lewis praised the street painting as “a powerful work of art.” The newly created plaza was among the stops earlier in the week as Lewis’s hearse made its way to the Capitol, where his body lay in state.
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.”