On Thursday afternoon, Representative John Lewis was laid to rest in Atlanta, where he lived and served as a member of Congress for more than three decades.
Three living presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — were in attendance to honor the life of one of the nation’s most prolific civil rights figures. But it was the eulogy of Mr. Obama, the first Black president of the United States, that may never have happened were it not for the work of Lewis himself.
“I’ve come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom,” Mr. Obama told the emotional crowd at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Indeed, Mr. Obama told Lewis as much after he was sworn in at his first inauguration in 2009, when Lewis asked for Mr. Obama’s signature. “Because of you, John,” Mr. Obama wrote on the congressman’s program.
Lewis may not have imagined he’d even live to see that day, as he was beaten and nearly killed while leading a peaceful march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. America watched the violence in horror, and eight days later the Voting Rights Act was passed ensuring Black people had the right to vote.
Mr. Obama spoke of that fateful day, and Lewis’ legacy of leadership, on Thursday. “John Lewis, first of the Freedom Riders, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, member of Congress,” he said. “He not only embraced that responsibility, but he made it his life’s work.”
It was that lifelong fight for the right to vote that Mr. Obama encouraged America to continue, as he highlighted threats to voting access and an unprecedented demand forin the upcoming November election.
“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 and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the postal service in the run-up to an election,” he said.
Mr. Obama then called for, among other things, making Election Day a federal holiday, giving equal representation to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, the expansion of early voting, and ending partisan gerrymandering while pleading with young people to use their hard-won right to vote.
He also challenged current political leaders to, part of which was by the Supreme Court in 2013, and name it after Lewis. “You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for,” Mr. Obama said.
“Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better, by making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who have earned their second chance,” Mr. Obama said.
While he did not make any direct hits against President Trump, he spoke of the violence which Lewis and other peaceful protesters were met with while pushing for the end to discriminatory practices in America — which has a striking similarity to what we are seeing in response toprotests today.
“Bull Connor might be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes, police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
“I know this is a celebration of John’s life,” he continued, “but there are some that might say, ‘we shouldn’t dwell on such things,’ but that’s why I’m talking about it. John Lewis devoted his time on this earth fighting the very attacks on democracy, and what’s best in America, that we’re seeing circulate right now.”
The two men had an undeniable bond – they knew their legacies were closely tied. In 2011, Mr. Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for dedicating his life to the cause of equal rights. Five years ago, in 2015, Lewis and Mr. Obama walked hand in hand across the bridge in Selma to mark the 50th anniversary of that Bloody Sunday.
Lewis often spoke with wonder of seeing a Black man voted into the highest office in the land in his lifetime. “It’s almost too much, too emotional,” he told The New Yorker in 2009.
But while Mr. Obama made history as the first Black man elected president, he remembered Lewis on Thursday as a man who had changed the course of it.
“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.”
Mr. Obama’s eulogy was a moment 55 years in the making, and marks the end of six days of events celebrating Lewis’s life. But on the day of his funeral, Lewis himself ultimately had the last word.
The New York Times on Thursday morning published an op-ed written by Lewis just days before his death from pancreatic cancer on July 17 at the age of 80. He spoke of how the Black Lives Matter movement inspired him in his final days and called upon this new generation of activists to continue the work he started all those years ago.
“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,” Lewis wrote.
“In my life, I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”