Obama gives passionate eulogy as John Lewis honored at funeral in MLK's Atlanta church

"He loved America until America learned to love him back," the Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor said of John Lewis, where former President Barack Obama gave the eulogy.

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By Minyvonne Burke and Doha Madani

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 from 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.

“Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” Obama said. “George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”

While some may criticize those who “dwell on” such injustices during Lewis’ funeral, Obama said they were the same attacks on American democracy that Lewis devoted his entire life to combating. Obama took aim at recent efforts to disenfranchise voters and called on leaders to honor Lewis by revitalizing and protecting voting rights.

“We may not 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 — by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws," Obama continued.

"And attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the postal service in the run-up to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick."

Remembering a friend, lawmaker, warrior of peace

The private funeral 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.”

Clinton said of Lewis, "He never lost heart ... He kept moving."

"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."

"It made him in my mind even greater," Clinton said.

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.

Like Lincoln, she said, Lewis was spiritual and saintly, but also a very good politician.

“When he spoke people listened. When he led people followed," she said.

Activist James M. Lawson also spoke, and former Atlanta Mayor William Craig Campbell, and Lewis' niece were also on the program. President Donald Trump was not 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.

Honoring a legacy through action

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.

Though Lewis is possibly best known for helping to lead the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, he had already emerged as a leading voice in the fight for equal rights and had been arrested a number of times for the cause by then.

As a student at Fisk University in Tennessee, Lewis helped organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. He was one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961, taking buses from the North to the Deep South to protest segregation at interstate bus terminals.

At 23, Lewis was the youngest person who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the time.

Obama remarked on the incredible courage it took for a young Black man to take these risks for justice, beginning as a 20-year-old at a segregated counter in Nashville.

“You know sometimes, we read about this and we kind of take it for granted,” Obama said. “Or at least we act as if it was inevitable. Imagine the courage of two people Malia’s age, younger than my oldest daughter, on their own, to challenge an entire infrastructure of oppression.”

The former president said that the last time he and Lewis shared a public forum, a Zoom town hall with young activists, the congressman spoke about his pride over seeing young Americans marching in the streets after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

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."