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Obama, eulogizing John Lewis, takes aim at Trump over voting rights, protest response

Without mentioning his successor by name, the former president decried that federal troops had been deployed against "peaceful demonstrators."
Former President Barack Obama pseaks during the funeral for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on July 30, 2020.
Former President Barack Obama speaks during the funeral for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on July 30, 2020.Alyssa Pointer / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool

Former President Barack Obama delivered sharp criticism of his successor Thursday as he eulogized the late Rep. John Lewis, slamming the actions of President Donald Trump without naming him.

At Lewis' funeral at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Obama said Americans must be “vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history.”

“Today, we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” he said.

“George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators,” he said, prompting a standing ovation.

Trump ordered federal agents and military troops in June to disperse a group of peaceful protesters outside the White House, and tear gas and flash bangs were used. More recently in Portland, Oregon, protesters who have been demonstrating for weeks have accused federal agents deployed to the city by Trump of using tear gas on them.

And in a clear reference to Trump and Republican efforts to discourage mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic, Obama said, "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 darndest to discourage people from voting."

Obama said that this is being done “by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision — even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that's got to be dependent on mail-in ballots so that people don't get sick.”

The former president called on Congress to revitalize the Voting Rights Act in Lewis’ honor, “the law that he was willing to die for." But Obama said that while that’s a fine tribute to the congressman, politicians should “keep marching to make it even better.”

Lawmakers can make this progress, Obama said, by making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates, by adding polling places and expanding early voting and by making Election Day a national holiday to ensure that people don’t have to worry about taking time off from work to go to the polls.

Obama then endorsed the idea of eliminating the 60-vote filibuster in the Senate that’s required for most pieces of legislation to advance if that’s the only way to make these priorities a reality.

“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do,” he said.

Finally, Obama emphasized that Lewis, an early hero of the civil rights movement, said that things will remain the same if individuals don’t do everything they can to change things.

“As long as young people are protesting in the streets, hoping real change takes hold, I'm hopeful,” Obama said. “But 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.”