Obama Hails John Lewis as a 'Founding Father' of a 'Better America' and Calls for Voting Legislation
"He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals," Obama said in his eulogy for the late lawmaker, who helped lay the foundation for modern-day civil rights activism in the U.S.
Rep. Lewis, a lifelong nonviolent activist and longtime Georgia lawmaker, died on July 17 less than a year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“He was a good and kind and gentle man and he believed in us, even when we didn’t believe in ourselves," Obama, 58, said.
Thursday's funeral in Atlanta capped off a week-long "Celebration of Life" for Lewis — who in his decades of work had evolved from passionate young man into elder statesman of subsequent generations of activists getting into what he always called "good trouble."
He was a key figure during the civil rights movement and the last surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington.
"America was built by John Lewises," Obama said, to a roar of applause. "He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals. And someday when we do finish that long journey towards freedom, when we do form a more perfect union, whether it’s years from now or decades, or even if it takes another two centuries, John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America."
Lewis was honored with memorial processions across the southern U.S. this past week, with his casket making stops in Troy, Selma and Montgomery in his native Alabama.
The congressman's casket was also displayed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., earlier this week, before his body was brought back to Atlanta — his adopted home — for Thursday's funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. had preached.
Obama, 58, eulogized Lewis from the same pulpit, wearing a blue ribbon and a lapel pin with the late congressman's portrait.
“The life of John Lewis was in so many ways exceptional," the former president said. "It vindicated the faith in our founding — redeemed that faith. That most American of ideas, the idea that any of us, ordinary people without rank, or wealth, or title, or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo."
Lewis was the youngest of the "Big Six" leaders of the civil rights movement, alongside King, and led the march through Selma, Alabama, on "Bloody Sunday," helping lead to the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“John never believed what he did was more than what any citizen of this country could do,” Obama remembered.
“He treated everyone with kindness and respect, because it was innate to him," Obama said. "This idea that any of us could do what he did, if we’re willing to persevere. He believed that in all of us there exists a capacity for great courage.”
During the roughly 30-minute eulogy, Obama recalled meeting Lewis for the first time after hearing him speak in college. He drew laughs from the crowd when he recalled Lewis' humbleness during their first meeting.
Obama also shared a story from his 2009 inauguration, saying Lewis was one of the first people he approached and spoke to after he was sworn in as the country's first Black president.
"I told him, ‘This is your day too,’ ” Obama said, as the Atlanta church fell emotionally silent.
Obama awarded Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
“I was proud that John Lewis was a friend of mine," Obama said Thursday, during a speech that reflected on Lewis' life of civil service but also sought to motivate modern protesters, who have demonstrated across the country in the wake of George Floyd's death in May.
“We’re also going to have to remember what John said," Obama told the audience. "If you don’t do everything to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You have to give it all you have.”
Former First Lady Laura Bush sat alongside President Bush, while former First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama did not appear to be in attendance. (Both former first ladies shared written tributes this week on social media.)
President Jimmy Carter, 95, and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, 92, were also not in attendance because the two "are not traveling these days," a spokesperson told NBC News. However, the Carters did send along a written statement, which was read during Thursday's services.
President Donald Trump was not in attendance and a White House spokesman would not explain to PEOPLE on the record why the president did not attend the funeral for the veteran congressman and Civil Rights icon. (Trump, 74, also declined to attend Lewis' memorial services in D.C. earlier this week.)
Throughout Obama's eulogy, the former president made reference to modern racial tensions in the U.S.
“Like John, we’ve got to keep getting into that good trouble,” Obama said. “He knew that nonviolent protest is patriotic — a way to raise public awareness and put a spotlight on injustice and make the powers that be uncomfortable.”
Elsewhere in his eulogy, Obama extolled the value of the voting-access activism of Lewis and others — and of the challenges posed by politicians who worked, systematically, to make it harder for some people to vote.
"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 darnedest to discourage people from voting," Obama said.
He also rebuked — in all but name — some of the Trump administration's decisions such as "undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election" and sending federal agents to the Portland protests.
Referring back to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that had severely weakened the Voting Rights Act which was a crowning achievement of Lewis' life, Obama said:
"If politicians want to honor John, and I’m so grateful for the legacy and work of all the congressional leaders who are here, but there’s a better way than a statement calling him a hero. You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for."
"Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better," Obama said, pointing to further changes such as automatic voter registration and making Election Day a holiday.
After Obama finished his speech, the church choir played "We Shall Overcome."
“What a gift John lewis was," Obama said, ending his speech. "We are all so lucky to have him walk with us for a while and show us the way.”